Healthcare Industry

More health care companies require COVID-19 vaccination

As Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has earned full approval from the federal regulators, more health care companies and organizations are requiring their employees to get the shot.

The connection is not necessarily direct: Companies that said they are requiring their workers to get vaccinated did not say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine was the catalyst.

But that federal approval and the increasing number of health care organizations requiring vaccinations show a building momentum for vaccine requirements in the health care industry.

“From the start of the pandemic, our decision-making process has been driven by health, safety and science,” CVS Health president and CEO Karen S. Lynch said in a news release this week as the company announced it will require all corporate staff and patient-facing workers such as nurses and pharmacists to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 31.

“While the vast majority of our employees have chosen to be vaccinated, this decision is in direct response to the dramatic rise in cases among the unvaccinated.”

CVS has 38 pharmacies in Iowa. The company has administered more than 30 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine across the country, the company said.

“We’d like to emphasize that as a company, the FDA approval underscores the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness and we are pleased that it may help reassure any employees who have been hesitant to get vaccinated,” Charlie Rice-Minoso, CVS Health’s spokesman for the Midwest region, said in an email.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths had been plunging across the United States and in Iowa since January, when rollout of the vaccines first started to pick up steam. But since June, all those numbers have been surging again as 39 percent of the eligible U.S. population — 12 years and older — and nearly half the overall population remains unvaccinated, according to federal data, helping to enable the virus’ more transmissible delta variant to spread.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in July said COVID-19 has become “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” And Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, in April said the campaign to get Iowans and Americans vaccinated is a “literal race” against the virus’ variants.

Kelly Garcia, Iowa Department of Public Health director, in April said the campaign to get Iowans and Americans vaccinated is a “literal race” against the virus’ variants. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

At least five national health care organizations — including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and American Academy of Pediatrics — have formally advocated for requiring all health care workers to be vaccinated.

Walgreen’s, with 72 locations in Iowa, also is requiring all workers in support offices to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. Any worker who is “unable to be vaccinated,” a company spokesman said, will be required to enroll in a COVID-19 testing program.

“Our highest priority is ensuring the health and safety of our team members, as well as our customers and patients,” said Fraser Engerman, Walgreen’s senior director of external relations.

Some Iowa-based health care companies have reached a similar conclusion.

MercyOne, which employs more than 20,000 workers across its expansive Iowa network of hospitals, clinics and other care locations, a week ago announced it will require all medical staff to be vaccinated.

“As a faith-based health ministry, we have pledged to protect the most vulnerable. Our patients and their families expect us to provide a safe environment for their care, and that includes being vaccinated,” MercyOne CEO Bob Ritz said in a statement.

‘Extraordinary challenges’

Not all health care organizations in Iowa agree.

The Iowa Health Care Association represents more than 700 nursing, assisted living and residential care facilities, senior living communities and home health agencies in the state. Brent Willett, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, said FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine is “very encouraging,” and that members have detected an anecdotal uptick in vaccinations from staff.

However, Willett cautioned against a vaccine mandate for nursing home and other senior and long-term facility workers out of concern it might drive away some staff at a time when many facilities already are facing staffing shortages, he said.

“Our long-term care staff have faced head-on extraordinary challenges unlike any of us have faced throughout the pandemic to provide care for others. We owe them the respect of providing them with the time to learn more about what the recently announced FDA approval means for the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine,” Willett said in an email.

“They also deserve the opportunity to talk with their own health care providers about their individual circumstances to make their own decision.

“Even with FDA approval, long-term care providers remain deeply concerned about the impact on staff retention should a federal mandate for only long-term care workers be enacted. Singling out nursing home staff is counterproductive, and it will only further exacerbate crisis-level workforce shortages in long-term care.

“We need common sense policies such as a test-out option, resources for education and testing, and time to adjust to the new normal.”

Service Employees International Union Local 199, a union that represents 4,500 workers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and child care centers across Iowa, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The 860-bed University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City — with more than 16,500 employees, students and volunteers — has not mandated vaccination but has seen high voluntary uptake, according to spokeswoman Laura Shoemaker.

“UI Health Care is proud that to date over 90 percent of our 16,000-plus staff members have chosen to get vaccinated,” Shoemaker said in a statement. “This is a much higher vaccine uptake than many organizations, including those that have mandates in place.”

Although UIHC, which accommodates more than 1 million clinic visits every year, requires mask wearing throughout its facilities, Shoemaker said the administration has focused its vaccine efforts on providing workers “with the information they need to feel safe and comfortable in their decision to get vaccinated and to provide easy access to the vaccine.”

As of Thursday, UIHC was reporting 15,587 employees had received at least a first dose and 15,453 are fully vaccinated.

“Employees who work within our patient care facilities are required to wear masks in non-patient care areas such as conference rooms and breakrooms, regardless of their vaccination status,” Shoemaker said.

She added that UIHC throughout the pandemic has “consistently monitored the situation and modified our safety precautions as needed to maintain the safety of employees, patients, and visitors.”

ImpactLife, a not-for-profit that provides blood services to more than 120 hospitals across the Midwest, announced Friday it will require its 700-plus employees to be vaccinated by Nov. 1. In making its announcement, the organization noted similar mandates at private employers, colleges and government entities in the company’s coverage area.

Vanessa Miller of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids contributed.