By Andrew Keshner
In the face of rising COVID-19 case counts fueled by the delta variant and ongoing reluctance to get vaccinated among many Americans, more than 50 major healthcare professional groups called on hospitals and other healthcare providers Monday to make the jab a job requirement.
“This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all healthcare workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being,” said the undersigned groups, which include the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The groups note that vaccination is the way to get past the pandemic. But one big obstacle and question remains: can it convince employers — at a time when the healthcare sector, like other parts of the economy now, needs so many people to fill jobs?
The labor shortage, and potential loss of staff that refuses the shot “absolutely is a concern,” said Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief healthcare officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, one of the undersigned organizations that represents medical schools and hospital system offering around 30% of the medical care in the country. “But you’ve got to do the right thing,” she told MarketWatch.
The statement arrived hours before the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that all medical employees in the federal department must get vaccinated. “We’re mandating vaccines for Title 38 employees because it’s the best way to keep Veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country,” said Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough.
Monday’s joint statement comes from medical groups representing millions of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers. Many people working with patients and long-term care in the sector as a whole remain unvaccinated, the groups noted.
That’s a point borne out in the numbers. A Kaiser Family Foundation-Washington Post survey in March that found 18% of polled healthcare workers had no plans to become vaccinated and 12% had not decided.
One in four hospital workers who are in contact with patients still had not received a first dose in May, WebMD and Medscape Medical News said in a review of data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
As of Monday, 60% of the country’s adult population was fully vaccinated and 69% had at least one dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the same day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he’s “very frustrated” with the slowing gains on vaccination as the delta variant spreads. “We’re going in the wrong direction,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Now put those vaccination statistics and healthcare worker survey numbers against other numbers: job openings and job hires in the healthcare sector.
In May, there were 671,000 hires in the healthcare and social assistance sector, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That same month, there were 1.48 million job openings —more than double the number of openings.
The number of job openings in the sector have been on the rise since the pandemic, but it’s worth noting openings were already exceeding the number of job hires before the pandemic.
The current imbalance between hires and job openings in the healthcare sector are part of broader labor shortage right now that might make it difficult for employers to be extra tough in their worker requirements.
Across all sectors, there were 5.6 million hires and 8.3 million job openings in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It remains to be seen how much the statement will nudge employers of healthcare providers to adopt mandates, said Michael Bertoncini, principal at Jackson Lewis, a national law firm representing employers.
But healthcare employers are “acutely aware” of the slim job applicant pool now, he said. They are also aware of the stalling vaccination rate, and the rising case count, said Bertoncini, co-leader of the firm’s healthcare industry group.
“Will a mandate be enough to push those people who are right now reluctant? Is it enough to push them to get the vaccine?” he said.
“It’s difficult to predict what level of the population really has a sincere opposition to the vaccine and whether facing a job loss makes a difference,” Bertoncini added.
Many employers, in and outside the healthcare sector, have shied away from mandated COVID-19 vaccines, even as it’s become increasingly clear they legally can require the vaccine for continued employment.
More than a month ago, a federal judge upheld a Houston, Texas hospital system’s vaccination requirements in a ruling thought to be the first addressing mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Observers at the time said there’d be more healthcare providers requiring staff vaccination, but not to expect a sea change because employers weren’t ready to duke it out with reluctant workers.
Jackson Lewis’ survey last month of healthcare employers said 70% would likely not require a vaccine. Around 35% of the employers said they had staff vaccination rates between 60% and 79%, and another 31% estimated that 40% to 59% of their workforce had their shots.
Anecdotally, Bertoncini said he has seen the number of healthcare employers mandating vaccination increase “pretty dramatically” in recent weeks. He attributes that to the delta variant’s continuing effects and awareness of the slowing vaccination rate.
Orlowski said it’s critical bring up the vaccination rates quickly. “If we don’t do something right now to take a gigantic step forward to vaccinate people we are going to have another bad fall,” she said.
Compared to any labor market disincentives because of mandates, a workforce coping with sickness and infection is “a worse threat to the American economy,” she said.