Kimberly Simonson, a 32-year-old personal care assistant, had to make a decision: whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Her employer at the Flagler Health and Rehabilitation Center informed her in late August that COVID-19 vaccination would soon become mandatory.
She said this decision came after President Joe Biden’s plan for all nursing homes to require vaccination for employees.
“Whenever it’s my own decision, then I felt better about it versus being forced to, so now it’s either you get vaccinated, or you don’t have a job,” Simonson said. “That kind of takes away your freedom a little bit.”
Simonson is one of the many healthcare workers across the country who has had to adapt to changing employee protocols at work. The number of healthcare clinics and hospitals beginning to mandate the vaccine has been growing since it became available in March. From dental clinics to emergency rooms to nursing homes, the pandemic has caused practices to reassess their employment conditions, especially with new factors, such as the surging cases of the delta variant and the recently approved Pfizer vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration.
Last week, on Sept.9, President Biden announced new vaccine requirements, which mandates shots for about 100 million Americans and includes employees in the private, health and federal sectors. Businesses that employ over 100 people will be required to comply with the mandate or be penalized with a $14,000 fine per violation.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has been critical of vaccine mandates, and his Executive Order 21-81 prohibits COVID-19 vaccine passports in Florida. The order also ensures COVID-19 vaccination records are private health information that cannot be shared by mandate. The Florida Department of Health is enforcing a $5,000 fine on businesses requiring proof of vaccination starting Sept. 16. However, the governor’s executive order may not be able to withstand the federal mandate.
The U.S. Department of Justice has stated employee vaccination mandates are legally permissible. Forty-nine out of 50 states, with the exception of Montana, are considered an “at-will” employment state, which means the employee and employer are both working through their own free will. This also means employees can be terminated without reason or cause. Therefore, termination is a reasonable repercussion if an employee refuses to comply. Employers can also offer incentives for their employees to get vaccinated, as long as those incentives are not coercive, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Commission Opportunity.
Prior to the national requirements, local hospitals have taken different approaches to mask and vaccine mandates.
UF Health Shands Hospitals, UF Health’s private, not-for-profit hospital system, enforced masking regardless of vaccination status while inside since Aug. 16. Those latest protocols also require employees to wear an N95 mask if unvaccinated and working in a clinical care unit or research environment. UF Health represents more than 26,500 employees, according to their website.
In a press conference on Sept. 2, Edward Jimenez, CEO of UF Health Shands Hospitals, said he is personally a proponent of vaccination and in support of masking.
“We started these new things, and we just have to see how that works,” Jimenez said. “It’s a little bit of [implementation] and seeing the impact.”
One change UF Health Shands is looking to implement is requiring student learners to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. Student learners are considered a visitor-volunteer role, which differs from being an employee at UF Health Shands, Jimenez said.
“If the things we have in place work great, then we’re done,” Jimenez said. “As with COVID all along, it’s an evolution.”
In light of President Biden’s vaccine plan, the hospital is not exploring mandatory vaccinations at this point, Jimenez said in a press conference on Sept. 13.
“The federal administration really hasn’t given us a very specific ‘go get it done’ date,” Jimenez said. “We sort of just need to play it by ear, week to week, and see how the community is doing.”
Less than a mile from UF Health Shands, the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center is mandating vaccines.
The VA Hospital is part of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System and initially implemented the mandate on Aug. 13. It expanded the national Veterans Health Affairs COVID-19 Vaccination Program mandate to include Title 38 Hybrid employees, Title 5 employees, volunteers, trainees and contractors that serve as health care.
The VA system is part of the federal government, and its health system employs more than 367,200 full-time health care professionals and support staff at 1,293 health care facilities.
“As part of the nation’s largest healthcare system, our obligation is to ensure the health and safety of Veterans and coworkers,” Melanie Thomas, the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System public affairs officer, wrote in an emailed statement. “We must do everything within our power to prevent the loss of another Veteran or member of the VA family at the hands of this deadly virus.”
The regional health system also implements safety measures, including mask requirements, regular COVID-19 testing for employees that provide care to high-risk patients and virtual work and appointment opportunities when available.
Problems may arise with mandating vaccination, including issues of liability, forms of exemptions and increased unemployment.
Simonson fears that the vaccine mandate will leave her facility short-staffed with too many residents. She said losing more employees could create more challenges.
As of July, Florida’s unemployment rate was at 5.1%. However, mandating a vaccine could cause the rate to increase. According to a national Washington Post-ABC News poll that asked unvaccinated workers what they would do if their employer mandated vaccination, it found 16% of unvaccinated workers would get the shot, 35% would ask for a medical or religious exemption, and 42% would quit.
Simonson contemplated whether to get the vaccine but ultimately decided it’s better to be safe rather than to be sorry. She decided she would get vaccinated.
“I just think that everybody just needs to do what they feel is best for them and their family,” Simonson said.