Doctors, nurses and therapists have worked tirelessly and at great personal risk over the past 18 months to treat the 40 million Americans infected with COVID-19. But thousands of medical workers in the Tampa Bay area are also endangering their patients and others by refusing to get vaccinated. This defies common sense — and business sense — and hospitals in the region should join other big employers in requiring their employees to be vaccinated.
Five of Tampa Bay’s major hospital groups have no vaccine mandate, and tens of thousands of their employees — many of whom are on the frontlines of the current surge — remain unvaccinated, the Tampa Bay Times reported this week. 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. 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 operate 16 hospitals between Citrus and Lee counties — declined to say how many of their workers are unvaccinated. 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.
It’s ludicrous that area hospitals jammed with COVID-19 patients are pleading with the public to get vaccinated while not requiring their own employees to get the jab. And this risk to the community does not involve the same contrived right of personal freedom that’s polluted the mask debate. There is no scientific doubt that the vaccines are safe, highly effective and capable of moderating even the ill effects of breakthrough infections. And federal law allows companies to make the vaccine a condition of employment. Some health care workers may legitimately be resisting on religious or medical grounds. But the sheer number of unvaccinated employees in area hospitals points to a larger problem of ignorance or indifference.
These hospitals have a responsibility to their community, and to all their employees, to maintain a safe working environment. And they certainly have a self-interest in containing a pandemic that has pushed staff and resources to the limit. And while health workers may wear protective equipment on the job, these same unvaccinated people circulate in public during their off hours, contributing to the risk of spreading infections.
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. That made sense as the nation’s vaccination efforts began to lag, and as officials looked to boost the inoculation campaign. All five of the region’s hospital firms contacted by the Times said they encourage employees to get vaccinated but declined to explain their 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.
Convincing holdouts in the medical field to get vaccinated has been a challenge nationwide, not only in Florida. While some facilities have imposed mandates, experts said that hospitals fear that forcing the issue will only worsen their staffing shortages, as unvaccinated employees take their skill sets elsewhere.
But this is a time for leaders — and for followers, too. Area hospitals should impose the mandate in unison, working to both protect their facilities and promote a level playing field. Major companies across the board have done that very thing. Disney, Delta Air Lines, Google, Microsoft and dozens of other retailers, banks, manufacturers, service providers and media outlets (including the Times) have stepped up to require vaccinations because it’s the surest, safest way to eventually beat the pandemic. If it’s good enough for Goofy and Mickey Mouse, it’s good enough for medical professionals entrusted with patient care.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.