Houston hospital threatens to fire workers who refuse COVID-19 vaccine

Coronavirus

A vial of the Pfizer vaccine (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Houston Methodist started with a carrot to ensure all of its 26,000 employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. Now it’s using a stick.

The hospital system is requiring that all of its workers get their shots by June 7, making it the first hospital system in the U.S. to issue a vaccination mandate. Managers at the hospital faced an earlier deadline and had to get their shots by April 15.

Houston Methodist — a medical center and six community hospitals — rewarded its vaccinated workers with an extra $500 back in March, while also signaling that at some point the shots would no longer be voluntary for its workers. 

The health system needs to do all it can to keep patients safe during the pandemic, and that includes having all staff vaccinated, Dr. Marc Boom, Houston Methodist’s president and CEO, told employees on Friday in an emailed message.

“Mandating the vaccine was not a decision we made lightly, but science has proven that the COVID-19 vaccines are very safe and very effective. Like I say to everyone who asks—whether they are reporters, the public, patients or our employees, it is our sacred obligation to do everything possible to keep our patients safe. By choosing to be vaccinated, you are leaders—showing our colleagues in health care what must be done to protect our patients, ourselves, our families and our communities.”

Other hospitals will soon follow suit, with plans already in the works at two other medical centers in Texas: Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine, the physician noted. “I have spoken to countless hospital leaders across the country who plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination soon,” he added in the email, which was shared with CBS MoneyWatch.

“We’re getting to the last mile of people who are more reluctant,” Boom told a town hall-style meeting earlier this month. “Trust the vaccines. They are safe, they are effective and they are the answer to this pandemic,” he said in leading a nearly two-hour discussion to address concerns and answer questions about the vaccines.

As of Friday, 89% Houston Methodist employees had complied with its vaccination policy, Boom stated in his email to employees. Out of about 1,200 in management who were required to be vaccinated by mid-month, two chose to leave. “We are sorry that they made that choice, but by doing so, they are putting themselves before the safety of our patients, which is not consistent with our culture,” he wrote. “By getting to 100%, we can show our community and our patients how much we care about them.”

Despite that goal, the hospital system’s new vaccination requirement prompted an online petition against the policy, started by an unidentified person who claims to be on staff.

“Many employees are scared that they will lose their job or be forced to inject the vaccine into their body against their will to keep their jobs and feed their family. We just want the power to choose for ourselves and not take this basic American right away from us! Please help our cause to fight for all the nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, pharmacy staff, phlebotomists, etc.,” the petition states. It had more than 3,000 signatures as of Friday evening.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in December that employers can legally require workers to get a COVID-19 shot. Exceptions can be made for workers with a disability or those with “sincerely held” religious beliefs that prevent them from getting inoculated.

“Keep you out of the funeral home”

Addressing worries about possible side effects, Boom and his colleagues stressed the far worse potential outcomes of not getting vaccinated. 

“All of these vaccines that are approved by the FDA for emergency use in America will keep you out of the hospital, and they will keep you out of the funeral home, and they will do a great job of protecting you from severe illness,” said Dr. Dirk Sostman, professor emeritus of radiology at Houston Methodist Weill Cornell Medical College, in the town hall.

Sostman also urged people against focusing “on basically a one-in-a-million chance of having a bad outcome with a vaccine when you’ve got a one-in-500 chance of dying from COVID. These risks are so disparate that they are hard to compare.”

The physicians warned that the Houston area has seen increased cases of more contagious variants of the coronavirus, making vaccinations that much more important. 

According to the Harris County/City of Houston COVID-19 data hub, the area has a 9.2% positivity rate and is recording just over 500 new cases a day. Nearly 22% of the population is now vaccinated in Texas, a state that has recorded nearly 50,000 COVID-19 deaths. 

In offering its roughly 65,000 U.S. employees $200 each and paid time off to get the shots on Thursday, health insurer Cigna also noted that the country is in “a race against more contagious variants.” 

The U.S. is administering just over 3 million vaccine doses a day, with the country averaging roughly 67,000 new infections daily. More than 52% of adults have received at least their first shot, and more than 35% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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