Tampa Bay hospitals push COVID vaccine — but won’t mandate it for their workers

Thousands of local doctors, nurses and medical workers are unvaccinated. For now, their employers will not mandate COVID-19 vaccines.
A sign acknowledging health care workers as “heroes” remains on display in front of Mease Dunedin Hospital. Thousands of Tampa Bay hospital employees remain vaccinated for COVID-19 despite the current surge and hospital chains have opted not to mandate vaccinations.
A sign acknowledging health care workers as “heroes” remains on display in front of Mease Dunedin Hospital. Thousands of Tampa Bay hospital employees remain vaccinated for COVID-19 despite the current surge and hospital chains have opted not to mandate vaccinations. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 3, 2021|Updated Sept. 7, 2021

“Cast members” at Disney World must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of October to continue playing Darth Vader, Gaston and Scrooge McDuck at the Orlando resort. The vaccine is also mandatory for pharmacists at CVS, and workers at United Airlines and meat and poultry producer Tyson Foods.

But that is not the case for most doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other medical workers treating the record number of COVID-19 patients in Tampa Bay hospitals.

Federal law allows companies to make the COVID-19 vaccine a condition of their employment. But five of Tampa Bay’s major hospital chains still have no vaccine mandate and tens of thousands of their employees — many of whom are on the frontlines of the current surge — remain unvaccinated.

Yet hospital officials have repeatedly called for the public to get vaccinated as their own workers struggle to treat the mostly unvaccinated patients infected by the contagious delta variant.

Related: Twelve hours in a Florida COVID-19 ICU

Only about half of the 13,000 employees who make up AdventHealth’s West Florida Division are fully vaccinated, said the firm’s Tampa chief medical officer, Dr. Doug Ross. At Tampa General Hospital, officials said about 30 percent of its 8,000 employees are unvaccinated.

BayCare, which runs 14 hospitals in the Tampa Bay region, reports that about 45 percent of its 30,000 workers are unvaccinated.

BayFront Health St. Petersburg, and HCA Healthcare — which operates 16 hospitals between Citrus and Lee counties — declined to say how many of their workers are unvaccinated.

That raises questions about whether patients have the right to know whether the nurses and doctors treating them are vaccinated — and fears that medical staff could pass the virus on to non-COVID patients. The American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics are among 50 medical groups that in July signed a statement calling for vaccine mandates for health care workers.

“It is critical that all people in the health care workforce get vaccinated against COVID-19 for the safety of our patients and our colleagues,” said Dr. Susan R. Bailey, immediate past president of the American Medical Association, in a statement.

Related: Florida averages 250 COVID deaths a day; children top infections, positivity rates

One major Tampa Bay hospital has mandated vaccines. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in June gave staff until Sept. 1 to get fully immunized. It has about 3,000 employees in the Tampa Bay region.

Finding out her nurses were unvaccinated was a shock for Dunedin computer engineer Jennifer Heffernan, 49, who spent three nights at BayCare’s Mease Dunedin Hospital in mid-August after doctors found fluid in her lungs. She was diagnosed with atypical pneumonia, a condition she said puts her at high risk from the coronavirus.

She spent three nights in a second floor room in a ward that nurses told her was filled with COVID patients. Two of the nurses who tended to her, Heffernan said, told her they were unvaccinated.

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“I was incensed and surprised,” she said. “It seems really unethical to put me in direct line of someone who is walking across the hospital to treat a COVID patient and then to treat me and they’re not vaccinated.”

The nurses who treated her both wore scrubs, N-95 masks and gloves, she said. One wore a face shield. Although the nurses often discarded their gloves when leaving her room, Heffernan said there were occasions when they returned without donning new gloves.

She was also concerned that the technician who performed a CT scan on her did not wear a mask.

Heffernan said one of her nurses told her she didn’t trust the vaccine and cited a false conspiracy theory the vaccines contain nanotechnology that could be used to track her. The patient said she was astonished that she had to explain to a registered nurse how mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna work.

“It was concerning to me as a medical professional she didn’t understand the biology of vaccines,” Heffernan said.

Related: ‘No one should die.’ Tampa Bay doctors, nurses exhausted by COVID surge

BayCare does not comment on individual patients but responded to Heffernan’s complaints to the Tampa Bay Times by saying the safety of patients and employees is the company’s top priority. Record levels of COVID hospital admissions in the Tampa Bay region meant that 40 percent of BayCare’s hospital beds are filled by COVID patients, said spokesperson Lisa Razler.

“We have designated areas for COVID positive patients, but with record-high volumes we’re sometimes limited by the physical structure at each facility,” she said in an email. “This can be a bigger challenge in our smaller hospitals, which do not have a lot of physical space to use for temporary expansion.”

A patient is transported into the Harris Emergency Entrance by Sunstar emergency workers at Mease Dunedin Hospital on Wednesday.
A patient is transported into the Harris Emergency Entrance by Sunstar emergency workers at Mease Dunedin Hospital on Wednesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Medical staffers always wear personal protective equipment when treating COVID patients, she said.

“In combination with our other protocols, this protects patients and team members regardless of their vaccination status,” Razler said.

All five of the region’s hospital firms contacted by the Times said they encourage employees to get vaccinated but declined to explain their official positions for not mandating them. Those policies have not changed even after the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the Pfizer vaccine on Aug. 23, which until then had been administered under an emergency use authorization.

“Our focus remains on education to encourage voluntary vaccination and we can’t thank our caregivers enough for their resilience and commitment as they continue to provide compassionate care to our patients,” said HCA spokeswoman Debra McKell in an email.

Convincing medical workers to get vaccinated has been a challenge nationwide. Roughly one quarter of hospital workers who have contact with patients had not received their first COVID shot by the end of May, according to a WebMD and Medscape Medical News analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2,500 hospitals across the U.S. Hospitals, though, may not always know which workers are vaccinated if some get the shot outside of work.

Related: Florida not sharing which nursing homes have COVID-19 as overall cases rise

There are signs the landscape is slowly changing.

The Department of Veterans Affairs in July gave its hospital workers eight weeks to get vaccinated. A small number of Florida hospitals and clinics have also taken that step, including Jackson Health System in Miami, which offered employees a one-time $150 bonus if they are fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville campus and the Watson Clinic in Lakeland also have vaccine mandates.

“We are a 100 (percent) physician owned and operated company, and therefore we put our patient safety above all other concerns,” said Watson managing partner Dr. Steven Achinger in a statement on the firm’s website.

Still, some hospitals may be reluctant to push that requirement onto their workers, fearing that many employees may quit rather than comply. That’s a huge concern for hospitals already struggling to retain and hire nurses, said Richard Tarpey, an assistant professor who teaches health care management at Middle Tennessee State University’s Jones College of Business.

Hospitals have lost nurses due to burnout after 18 months of the pandemic, and some got infected themselves, said Tarpey, who worked for HCA in labor relations for 20 years. Nurses are also quitting hospital jobs to become travel nurses who can earn more than $5,000 a week on short-term contracts.

“Once you cross that line to mandate, you basically elicit a severe reaction,” he said.

Related: Florida Department of Health’s new rule: $5,000 fines for some vaccine mandates

There is still a level of vaccine hesitancy among medical professionals, in part because the vaccine was approved under emergency authorization, Tarpey said.

Studies bear that out. A survey of 4,500 nurses nationwide conducted by the American Nurses Association found that 25 percent were either unsure or did not trust the vaccine. More than half the respondents said they wanted more information about the potential long-term effects of the vaccine, which federal agencies say are safe and which have been administered to millions of people worldwide.

Still, Tarpey expects once the other COVID vaccines are fully approved, they will eventually be added to the standard vaccinations for the flu, measles, mumps and rubella that most hospitals already make a condition of employment. A federal court in Texas has already dismissed a case brought by 117 workers objecting to a vaccine mandate adopted at Houston Memorial Hospital.

“Courts have supported hospitals,” Tarpey said. “If all these vaccines get approved, the conversation will change.”

But hospitals also have to weigh how to navigate the heated political battleground around vaccines and masks, said attorney Ryan Rivas a partner at Tampa law firm Hall Booth Smith who counsels hospitals, physicians and other health care providers.

Related: DeSantis doesn’t support mandates for hospital staff to get COVID vaccines

The Florida Department of Health on Wednesday approved new rules authorizing a $5,000 fine for governments and businesses that require proof of COVID vaccines from customers. The state has not passed any laws that would prevent firms adopting vaccine mandates, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly said he opposes such measures. He said that upward of 80 percent of Florida physicians had been vaccinated but admitted the rate of immunization among nurses was much lower.

Adding to this complex issue is that guidance on the virus and vaccines is still evolving. The delta variant has shown it can infect and be transmitted by fully vaccinated people, though the vaccines shield them from severe symptoms, hospitalization and death from COVID. The federal government also recently recommended booster shots eight months after full immunization.

“I think it’s akin to diving into murky waters,” Rivas said. “You don’t know how the situation will change. COVID is a moving target; it’s constantly evolving.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story did not include details about the vaccine mandate at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

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