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The demand for COVID-19 vaccines has declined, and with only about 40% of the U.S. population fully inoculated as of late last month, employers are taking another look at whether to mandate workers get vaccinated.
But such mandates can leave employers on the hook for lost workdays and injuries stemming from vaccine reactions and create additional communications, tracking and recording challenges.
As of late May, 49% of 18- to 65-year-old individuals in the U.S. were fully vaccinated — far less than the 70% needed to achieve herd immunity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“A lot of employers thought, as soon as (vaccines) became available, that people were going to jump in and get them,” said Michele Tucker, Sacramento, California-based vice president of enterprise operations at third-party administrator CorVel Corp. “They’re feeling somewhat compelled to move toward mandatory requirement of the vaccine.”
After first leaving the decision up to employees and offering an incentive, the Houston Methodist hospital system recently said it would require its 26,000 employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or be subject to suspension and/or termination. The Medical University of South Carolina implemented a similar mandate.
“I have spoken to countless hospital leaders across the country who plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination soon,” said Dr. Marc Boom, Houston Methodist’s president and CEO, in an email to all employees dated April 23 that was forwarded by a spokeswoman to Business Insurance. Dr. Boom also said he expects nearby Memorial Hermann Health System and Baylor College of Medicine to issue their own coronavirus vaccination mandates. A former registered nurse at Houston Methodist recently went public with her decision to leave her job rather than get the vaccine.
“For us to optimize patient safety, we must have higher vaccination rates across MUSC Health,” a spokeswoman for MUSC said in an email. “Large numbers of patients are not coming to health care facilities because of our care team members’ lower vaccination rates. … After much deliberation, MUSC Health has decided to make it an expectation that all care team members be vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Many employers had been wary of forcing vaccinations, given the potential for side effects and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccines only on an emergency use basis.
However, some countries are implementing vaccination mandates for health care workers. On April 1, Italy approved an emergency decree that all health professionals must be vaccinated for the coronavirus. Those who refused had the option to be transferred to non-patient-facing duties or be suspended without pay for up to a year, according to the British Medical Journal.
“Health care and front-line employers have been “a little bit more aggressive” with their vaccine efforts, finding “much more of a need for mandating or strongly encouraging” vaccinations, said Adam Kemper, Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based partner with law firm Kelley Kronenberg P.A.
Ms. Tucker, who works with a number of hospital systems and medical centers in the U.S., has seen several more clients move toward mandatory vaccines recently after fewer employees than anticipated opted to be vaccinated.
She has also seen a few vaccine-related workers comp claims in the past month as a result of the mandates, but they’re “very small, not expensive and not significant,” she said. “If there is a significant reaction, it’s likely to be work-related. It’s certainly not worse than a COVID claim at this point.”
Employers who opted for a mandatory vaccine policy previously needed to worry about recording any serious adverse reactions on their Occupational Safety and Health Administration logs. However, the agency switched gears in late May, declaring on its questions and answers section that it “does not wish to disincentivize employers’ vaccination efforts” and would not enforce recording requirements related to worker side effects from COVID-19 vaccinations through May 2022.
The change, “might encourage an employer to go mandatory because that’s one less downside they would have to worry about,” said Brent Clark, partner in the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. “But I tend to think it wasn’t recordability that is causing hesitancy (in mandating vaccines). It more is a function of the employer’s desire to give the employees choice.”
Regardless of whether an employer mandates or merely encourages vaccinations, it’s crucial to communicate with employees, said Kathryn Bakich, Washington-based senior vice president and national director of health care compliance at employee benefits consultancy Segal Co.
“Having a very clear and understandable set of policies and explaining those up front is really important,” she said.
Employers that mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their workforce need to be prepared to verify inoculation, keep track of boosters and ensure they’re complying with relevant privacy laws, experts say.