Hospitals start requiring employees to get COVID shots

Public health law experts say the moves are a legal means of ensuring a safe, COVID-19 free environment for patients and workers.

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National News

June 21, 2021 - 4:38 PM

At Rady Children's Hospital on Tuesday, December 22, 2020, health care workers receive their first of two doses of the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine. Arlene Huezo, LVN inoculates Hazel Reyes, Medical Assistant with the COVID-19 Moderna vaccine. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

After a Texas federal court sided with a Houston hospital that required workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine or find another job, public health experts predict that most hospitals and medical practices will soon issue similar mandates.

When vaccines first became available in December under an emergency use authorization, hospitals reported that they planned to wait until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval of the vaccines before deciding whether to make the shots mandatory.

But in recent weeks, dozens of hospitals and medical groups in Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere began issuing vaccination requirements. Public health law experts say the moves are a legal means of ensuring a safe, COVID-19-free environment for patients and workers.

Requiring health care workers to get shots makes sense for liability reasons, said James Hodge Jr., a law professor at Arizona State University and director of the Network for Public Health Law’s Western Region Office. He said hospitals and other medical groups run a serious legal risk if a patient becomes infected from contact with an unvaccinated worker.

A growing number of hospitals are beginning to make the vaccine mandatory for workers, with some religious and medical exceptions, the American Hospital Association said in a statement emailed to Stateline. But some are waiting until the FDA fully approves the shots and more safety and efficacy data becomes available.

James Hodge, Network for Public
Health Law’s Western Region Office

In response to a flurry of vaccine requirements in health care and other professions, at least six states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah — have enacted new laws limiting mandatory COVID-19 shots.

In all but Tennessee, the new laws prohibit employers from requiring workers to get a vaccine but carve out an exception for health care and public health workers, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tennessee’s law prohibits the governor or a state agency from requiring any individual to get vaccinated and does not make an exception for health care workers.

Houston Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families saferLynn Hughes, U.S. District Judge

In the Texas case, 117 workers at Houston Methodist Hospital who had been put on leave without pay for refusing to accept a hospital-supplied vaccination by June 7 filed a lawsuit claiming their suspension and potential firing constituted wrongful termination.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas rejected the case, arguing in a June 12 ruling that if the hospital’s employees didn’t want to receive a COVID-19 shot, they were free to work elsewhere.

“Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer,” he wrote.

Lynn Hughes, U.S. District Judge

Hughes cited a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which found that Cambridge, Massachusetts, had the legal authority to require residents to be vaccinated against smallpox or pay a fine of $5. The high court found that the mandate was justified to protect public health.

Hughes’ five-page ruling is thought to be the first substantive judgment on the issue of COVID-19 vaccination mandates. At least six other cases involving schools, universities, first responders and nursing home workers are still pending or have been summarily dismissed, according to research by the Network for Public Health Law.

Texas is not the only place where hospital workers are protesting vaccine requirements.

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