Healthcare Largely Support Biden COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate, Express Concerns Over Workforce Shortages

While the main healthcare organizations expressed effusive support over President Joe Biden’s new mandate for COVID-19 vaccinations among millions of healthcare workers and private-sector employees, there are concerns about the current healthcare workforce shortage.

President Joe Biden announced on September 9 a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate that impacts many private-sector employees, as well as healthcare workers.

The mandate requires employers with more than 100 workers must either require employees to be vaccinated or be tested weekly. In addition, all health facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement must be fully vaccinated.

“We’ve been patient,” he said during the announcement at the White House. “But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.”

As of September 12, the CDC had reported that 178.7 million Americans, or 53.8%, were fully vaccinated, of the population 12 years or older, 63% is fully vaccinated.

In a press briefing the day after the new rule was announced, Jeffrey Zients, coordinator of the president’s COVID-19 task force, noted that vaccinations are the “best way to beat this pandemic” and that businesses, health systems, colleges and universities, and more have stepped up and adopted vaccination requirements.

“Vaccination requirements have been around for decades for diseases like polio, smallpox, and measles,” he said. “They’re widely supported, and importantly, they’re proven to work.”

While the mandate has drawn disapproval from some sectors and leaders, the healthcare industry has largely supported it. The American Hospital Association (AHA), American Medical Association (AMA), American Public Health Association (APHA), and the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) all quickly released statements applauding the requirement.

In July, SHEA and six other organizations had published a consensus paper promoting a requirement that employees of healthcare facilities get the COVID-19 vaccine. Hilary Babcock, MD, MPH, infectious disease specialist, Washington University and BJC Healthcare in St. Louis, Missouri, and a coauthor of the paper, explained to Chief Healthcare Executive why the COVID-19 vaccination requirement is no different than the influenza vaccination requirement that has been in place for years.

Gerald E. Harmon, MD, president of the AMA, noted that his organization was happy with the new rule as it shows the Biden administration’s efforts to help control the pandemic. “Aggressive measures will be needed to prevent further widespread transmission of COVID-19. Increased testing—more available and affordable—is a major step forward…” he said in a statement.

Similarly, APHA Executive Director Georges C. Benjamin, MD, said the administration’s action plan will boost vaccination rates, which is needed to end the pandemic.

“We have seen significant reductions in sickness and death among people who have been fully vaccinated,” Benjamin said. “This is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and it is spilling over into our children, who cannot yet get their shots. The solution is to get everyone who is eligible their vaccinations. The president’s plan can achieve that, and we are here to help.”

The AHA also supported the plan, but AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack did note the workforce challenge facing the healthcare industry right now.

“As a practical matter, this policy may result in exacerbating the severe workforce shortage problems that currently exist,” he said. “…we call on the Administration to work with us as partners in developing aggressive and creative strategies to address this matter to ensure that hospitals and health systems on the front lines of fighting the battle against COVID-19 have the necessary human resources to both win this battle and maintain essential health services for the patients and communities we serve.”

This is already playing out. Before Biden announced the new rule, New York state had already mandated all healthcare workers get the first dose by September 27. On Friday, Lewis County Health System, a local hospital in upstate New York, announced 30 employees had resigned and it would have to temporarily pause its maternity services, as a result. The hospital will not be able to staff its maternity department and newborn nursery as of September 25 and will have to stop delivering babies, NPR reported.

In general, rural hospitals could be hit the worst, Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, told USA Today. While larger hospitals may be able to handle a loss of workers who choose to resign instead of get vaccinated, it would be a huge blow to rural hospitals.