Tampa Bay businesses, hospitals watch for details of Biden vaccine mandates

Some have already directed their employees to get vaccinated. Others want more guidance.
Tampa General Hospital is pictured on Thursday, July 16, 2020.
Tampa General Hospital is pictured on Thursday, July 16, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sept. 10, 2021|Updated Sept. 10, 2021

A day after President Joe Biden announced a sweeping new plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic, in part by requiring large businesses to mandate vaccines or negative tests, Tampa Bay organizations were holding out for details on how such a plan might work.

Biden’s announcement Thursday — which immediately drew rebukes from some Republicans — said the administration would require most health care facilities that take Medicare or Medicaid funding to mandate vaccines for their employees. The plan would also require businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccinations or weekly COVID-19 testing of their staff, and to provide workers paid time off to get vaccinated. Federal workers and contractors would also be required to get vaccinated.

HCA Healthcare, AdventHealth and Bayfront Health St. Petersburg said in statements Friday that they plan to review details of Biden’s plan as information becomes available. All said they would continue to encourage vaccinations.

On Friday, Tampa General Hospital said it plans to comply with Biden’s order related to mandatory vaccines, saying that 74 percent of its staff were already vaccinated as of Sept. 6. The hospital didn’t provide further details on any mandatory vaccination plan, noting that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is still developing a rule around the requirement announced by the Biden administration.

Tampa General’s statement came a day after BayCare, southwest Florida’s biggest health care provider, said it would mandate vaccinations for its employees.

Related: BayCare will mandate COVID vaccine for its workers following new federal rules

Several large businesses in the area were taking a wait-and-see approach the day after Biden’s announcement.

One of the area’s largest companies, Largo technology distribution company TD Synnex — known until recently as Tech Data — is waiting for more guidance on how the new rules could affect the policies it already has in place, said spokesperson Bobby Eagle. The company requires vaccination for those who travel for business and encourages it for all other employees.

Another publicly traded corporation, Clearwater cybersecurity firm KnowBe4, is waiting for “specific rules in writing” from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration before forming a plan and determining how it will impact affect employees, said spokesperson Amanda Tarantino.

Jeff Blake, the chief people officer at Achieva Credit Union in Dunedin, said he’ll be “devouring” any official federal guidance the moment it becomes available.

“There’s so many unknowns,” he said. “What types of testing will they require? Will that be something that’s independently verified by a lab, a doctor or some type of practice? Or will they allow rapid at-home tests?”

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Blake said instituting requirements as outlined by the Biden administration could be challenging, but said he thinks it could help reduce the number of coronavirus cases in the long run.

For some companies, the order might not be that burdensome, said Robert Shimberg, an attorney and chairperson of the COVID-19 rapid response team at Hill Ward Henderson in Tampa. Companies always had the legal right to require most employees to get vaccinated, he said. And no worker actually has to get vaccinated under this rule; they can always take the option of providing a negative test.

Still, he said, there are lingering questions, including how the federal government plans to enforce the rule and what legal challenges may lie ahead.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has butted heads a number of times with the Biden administration, on Friday said that “action needs to be taken to protect the people of our state and hopefully of the entire United States. Nobody should lose their job based on this decision.”

It’s hard to know yet what effect Biden’s mandate could have in encouraging vaccinations, said Elisa Sobo, an anthropologist at San Diego State University who studies vaccine uptake and vaccine equity. She said vaccine mandates can work well if done by individual employers or organizations, but she worries there may be significant pushback to blanket federal mandates of private employers.

“It’s not necessarily good when the government mandates in such a direct way,” Sobo said. On the other hand, she said, such across-the-board government mandates could shift the burden from businesses from having to explain why they are doing a vaccine mandate by normalizing the requirement.

The new federal rules likely won’t have a big effect on Grow Financial Federal Credit Union, based in Tampa. In early August, the company told employees that, with few exceptions, all would have to be vaccinated by Sept. 20. It was a “difficult decision,” said Jared Barr, Grow’s vice president of marketing, but one that had become necessary.

At the time, a little more than half of the employees were vaccinated, Barr said. Today, the company is up to 91 percent.

“It’s really been a fantastic journey for us,” he said. “This is something we feel we need to do for each other, but also for the community we serve.”

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