Hospitals across the United States are suffering manpower shortages as concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines are forcing unvaccinated health care workers to leave their jobs.
The federal government now mandates vaccinations for all workers in health care facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, including hospitals and home health agencies, as well as federal workers and employees of contractors that do business with the federal government, work in Head Start programs, and work in schools run by the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Companies employing more than 100 workers must also either provide proof of vaccination for all workers or, for those who refuse the vaccines, weekly testing for the virus. The rule would be imposed by the Department of Labor and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As of October 10, that rule is not yet finalized.
The administration admits that the mandates are likely to cause shortages of health care workers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that concern on Good Morning America.
“[The mandate] absolutely creates a challenge,” Walensky said. “What I would say is [we need] to do some work … to meet them where they are, to understand where their hesitancy is so we can get them vaccinated and get them back to work.”
Labor Shortages Made Worse
According to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care and social assistance industry lost 746,000 workers from February 2020 to August 2021. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported on October 1 about 16 percent of American hospitals had critical staffing shortages.
Although comprehensive tallies of nationwide suspensions, termination, or resignations are not yet available, employers are reporting grim statistics.
Kaiser Permanente announced more than 2,200 employees from its nationwide workforce of roughly 240,000 had not met its vaccine requirement and were placed on administrative leave as of October 4. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio stated roughly 5,000 of the city’s public hospital healthcare workers, about 10 percent of the city’s health care workforce, had not met the state’s September 27 vaccination deadline.
Confronting Vaccine Hesitancy
A recent study of vaccine hesitancy conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that 20.5 percent of medical assistants, emergency medical technicians, and home health, nursing, psychiatric, or personal care aides reported being vaccine-hesitant.
American Hospital Association CEO Rick Pollack expressed support for the mandate but said it is likely to create additional shortages in the already hard-hit industry. In a statement immediately following the announcement of the mandate, Pollack called for the federal government to develop “aggressive and creative” strategies to address the workforce issue.
“We look forward to reviewing the details related to today’s announcement of these new policies in regard to implementation, timing, and the need for appropriate exceptions to accommodate medical and religious concerns,” Pollack said. “[As a] practical matter, this policy may result in exacerbating the severe workforce shortage problems that currently exist.”
Patients Will Suffer
Twila Brase, R.N., president of the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which co-publishes Health Care News, says staff shortages will impact patients.
“Patients suffering from heart attacks, cancer, kidney disease, asthma, and myriad other medical conditions may find themselves in a hospital that is short-staffed with nurses who are unable to oversee their care in a safe and timely manner,” Brase said. “No health care worker should be forced to choose between assuming a medical risk or losing their job. And no patient should be forced to face the possibility that their care is being compromised by a hospital’s political decision.”
The Biden order is unchallenged by hospitals, but health care workers have considered legal action, and the Attorneys General in 24 states sent a letter to President Biden condemning the mandates and explaining why they believe the action is illegal.
The quality of health care may suffer as a consequence of workarounds for the labor shortages being contemplated in places like New York City, says Chad Savage, M.D, founder of YourChoice Direct Care in Brighton, Michigan; president of DPC Action; and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Health Care News.
“NYC has proposed compensating for a vaccine-mandate physician staffing shortage by bringing in those who have retired or whose license has expired,” Savage said. “Thus, they are asserting that it is worse to be treated by a doctor who is licensed but unvaccinated than to be treated someone who is not licensed to practice medicine.”
And, the Airlines
Health care is not the only industry severely impacted by the mandate. Southwest Airlines canceled hundreds of flights on the weekend of October 9 and the action is believed to be related to a shortage of pilots caused by objections to vaccine orders. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) filed a lawsuit against the airline in relation to the matter.
“The new vaccine mandate unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment, and the new policy threatens termination of any pilot not fully vaccinated by December 8, 2021,” the filing reads. “Southwest Airlines’ additional new and unilateral modification of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement is in clear violation of the RLA (Railway Labor Act).”
Southwest Airlines appears to be in a tough spot because of the $50 billion it received in the COVID-19 bailout. One pilot told investigative reporter Alex Berenson the money made the airline “particularly reluctant to stand up to the Biden administration.” Southwest is a contractor for the federal government and subject to President Joe Biden’s executive order on vaccines.
The U.S. Freedom Flyers and the Health Freedom Defense Fund announced they will file a federal lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Biden’s vaccine orders.
Kevin Stone (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Arlington, Texas.
This article was updated on October 29, 2021.