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More health care providers issue COVID vaccine mandates. Why the trend will continue

A growing list of local governments and health care providers say the threat of the Delta variant outweighs concerns tied employee vaccine refusal.

MINNEAPOLIS — As the Delta variant fuels a fast resurgence of COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Health is making a pitch for residents to get vaccinated, while a growing number of governments and employers are making it mandatory.

On Monday, both the state of California and New York City announced that public employees will soon be required to get vaccinated or face weekly testing. 

The VA also became the first federal agency to mandate the vaccine for its frontline health care workers, and the Mayo Clinic says it will require shots for employees across its nationwide network of providers.

Each mandate comes with different rules and ramifications, but experts say they all mark the start of a growing trend. A group of nearly 60 major medical organizations issued a joint statement on Monday, in support of all health care and long term care providers mandating the shot.

In Minnesota, industry experts say more big announcements are coming from providers in the coming days and weeks.

"We have some large organizations that have decided it is time," said Patti Cullen, President and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, which represents senior housing and long term care providers. "We have to do right by our families... when they place loved ones, they want to know, 'Is everyone vaccinated? How many are vaccinated?'"

Cullen says mandates have been a tough call for many providers, especially in an industry that is already struggling to keep up with demand.

"We are short workers, significantly," she said. "There are thousands and thousands of openings. We've had holds on admissions because we can't get workers, and with mandates, we will lose some workers."

But after months of advocating for education and incentives instead of mandates, Cullen says providers, especially in rural areas, are concerned that staff vaccination rates remain far too low.

"They're trying and trying but they're encountering just intense social media misinformation campaigns, which makes it very difficult for them to get someone convinced that it's safe," Cullen said. "We do practice infection control, everyone wears full PPE, but the Delta variant is 3 or 4 times more contagious, and I think that's a game changer."

In response, Sanford Health and Good Samaritan Society are also planning to begin mandating the vaccine for new employees in September, with all employees expected to comply by November. Patti says more will follow in the next week or two and her board could formally endorse mandates as soon as Tuesday.

"My association, I'm assuming, is going to say we're strongly supporting vaccine mandates in our setting, but it is going to be up to the individual employer to make that decision," she said. "You don't want to kill someone in your building. This variant is wild fire. We know that the more vaccinated folks we have working in our settings the less risk it is for those we serve and co-workers."

The new vaccine mandates are getting some pushback from the state nurses union. When asked for comment about Monday's announcements, the Minnesota Nurses Association directed KARE11 to a statement from National Nurses United.

The California Nurses Association/National Nurses United today welcomed the announcement by Gov. Gavin Newsom that state and health care employees will either be required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination or take part in a robust testing program. Nurses know the vaccine is a critically important part of a comprehensive public health program for infection control and strongly encourages everyone—who is able—to get immunized against Covid-19.

Union nurses have historically taken the position that we encourage nurses to get inoculated with proven, FDA-approved vaccines (and about 92 percent of nurses do accept the seasonal influenza vaccine.) But making vaccination mandatory has serious implications when tied to one’s employment, a policy decision we do not take lightly. Nurses know that for medical or religious reasons, some people are unable to be vaccinated and appreciate that Gov. Newsom and some employers throughout the state recognize this and also offer regular testing. Nurses also know the best way to encourage vaccination is through education and access and not mandates, especially following a year where nurses were left to care for patients without adequate resources and protections.

CNA/NNU is calling on employers and hospitals to promote vaccination through educational efforts, ensuring easy access (during all shifts) to free vaccines for all workers, and promoting continued dialogue on the efficacy and benefits of Covid-19 vaccinations.

Vaccination should never replace proven and effective workplace and public infection control measures that the entire country could be taking now, including protecting nurses and health care workers with optimal PPE, providing safe staffing levels, robust and routine testing, proper isolation, contact tracing and notification, proper quarantining, universal masking, stay-at-home orders and social distancing, and diligent hygiene. Science shows that a multiple-measure approach to infection control is the most effective, and vaccination is just one, albeit critical, component.

According to MNA, grievances will likely be filed if these new mandates impact job status or don't include some exceptions, but history has been on the side of employers. Essentia health imposed a flu vaccine mandate back in 2017, and it was upheld in arbitration.

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