About 70% of hospital staff in D.C. and Maryland are already vaccinated.
Hospitals across D.C. and Maryland will begin requiring vaccines for all employees, officials announced on Wednesday, marking one of the first vaccine mandates to come down in the D.C. region.
The D.C. Hospital Association, which includes George Washington University, Howard University Hospital, and Medstar Washington Hospital Center (among other D.C.-based health networks) released a statement calling on all of the city's health systems to require COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment — an effort to increase vaccine uptake for the group that was first eligible for the shot in late 2020.
"The District of Columbia is blessed with a hospital workforce of over 30,000 individuals that provided and continue to provide compassionate and quality care throughout the pandemic," Jacqueline D. Bowens, President and CEO of the DCHA said in a statement Wednesday. "This consensus is a reiteration of our hospitals' commitment to safety by keeping our staff, patients and visitors protected against COVID-19."
The Maryland Hospital Association, which represents the state's 60 hospitals and health systems, also said in a statement that employees at member facilities will be required to be vaccinated as a condition of employment.
The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association has not put in place a vaccination requirement, according to spokesperson Julian Walker. The association represents 110 member hospitals in the commonwealth, ranging from large urban and suburban facilities to small rural ones.
Walker said the association's current guidance, finalized by a committee last fall, is that "vaccination was encouraged among hospital employees, specifically among frontline staff, but that it was voluntary." He said the committee is continually reviewing possible updates to the policy, but that potential changes would have to be finalized by the association's Board of Directors at an upcoming meeting in July.
"You've got to build consensus when making broadly applicable policy statements or updates to them," Walker said.
In D.C. and Maryland, hospitals will individually set deadlines for the vaccine requirement to go into effect, and the networks must still abide by any laws that would allow medical or religious exemptions from the shot.
Many hospital workers have already gotten the shot, though there are some holdouts. According to D.C. and Maryland associations, about 70% of hospital employees in the two jurisdictions are fully vaccinated as of June 9.
Area hospital leaders applauded the decision, noting that more vaccines amongst eligible workers means better protection against COVID-19 for the children in their care who can't receive a vaccine.
"Currently, the vaccine is not authorized for children under the age of 12, so this new requirement for our employees is an important and meaningful way to safeguard the health of the children whose care is entrusted to us," said Kurt Newman, the President and CEO of Children's National Hospital, in a statement.
Newman said Children's National employees, more than 75% of whom are already vaccinated, will have until September 30 to get their shots. A spokeswoman for the hospital said the process of carrying out the requirement "will be similar to our flu process with accommodations for medical or religious reasons."
"As health care professionals, we accept that we hold ourselves to a higher standard and we embrace our mission to devote ourselves to the welfare of those in our care," said Mohan Suntha, the president and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System, in a statement. "COVID-19 vaccines are by far the best way to stop the spread of the virus, and given our ethical obligation to our patients, we must take every appropriate measure to keep our hospitals and other locations as safe as possible."
The system's more than 29,000 employees have until the beginning of September to be vaccinated — or else comply with regular COVID-19 testing. Once coronavirus vaccines are given full approval by the Food and Drug Administration, rather than emergency use authorization, UMMS plans to fully mandate the shots.
United Medical Center, the District's public hospital, has not yet made coronavirus vaccinations mandatory, according to an emailed statement from a spokeswoman.
D.C.'s data estimates that 68.3%. of residents ages 18 and over are partially vaccinated (though this number may be higher due to residents that traveled out of state to get their shots.) In Maryland, 71.2% of the population over age 18 has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and in Virginia, 68.3% of the adult population has received at least one dose. As vaccination rates began to plateau this spring, the region's leaders began offering vaccine incentives to push towards herd immunity, but none have gone so far as to mandate vaccinations for any frontline government employees — a potentially messy and complex issue implicating public policy and worker rights.
Despite being eligible for months, by early May less than two-thirds of D.C. 's police force had been vaccinated, and local officials have yet to indicate that a mandate could ever come in the future. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan stopped short of a mandate, but offered a cash bonus to government workers who got their shot.
In other jurisdictions, vaccine mandates have often been met with pushback from labor unions. In Houston, 117 employees filed a lawsuit against a hospital for requiring vaccinations, and on Monday, 200 workers at the hospital were suspended for failing to meet the hospital's required inoculation deadline.
Executive Director of the D.C. Nurses Association, Edward Smith, expects that the hospital associations' decision "invites" litigation, potentially similar to the situation in Houston. While he wouldn't comment on whether the D.C. Nurses Association would take action, he noted that the decision will impact thousands of employees, and it's likely someone could decide on their own to file a complaint.
Smith says the D.C. Nurses Association fully supports vaccinations amongst all members and health care workers, and that the group has spent months providing education and informational material on the vaccines to their members. This encouragement through conversation, he says, is the way to increase voluntary vaccinations, instead of handing down a mandate tied to employment.
"Do we want to continue to try to encourage people to take the vaccine to help support the continuing health care of residents, and your coworkers, [your] patients and your family?" Smith says. "Do we want to continue to encourage that, and try to convince people this is the right thing to do? Or do we want to put a sword over their head and say, you're gonna lose your job if you don't do this?"
He adds that such an ultimatum comes after many hospital workers were left without proper testing, personal protective gear, and other COVID-19 protections during the worst months of the pandemic's surges.
"The health care workers, quote unquote, have been our heroes for a year and a half, and during that year and a half, they had problems getting proper personal protective equipment to do their jobs, they had problems initially getting tested," Smith says. "So to deal with what they've dealt with for the past 16, 17 months, and then now say, 'if you don't get your shot, we're going to fire you' despite the concerns that people have?"
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.