Virginia hospital group supports COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Monday, a group representing 110 Virginia hospitals and 26 health delivery systems announced its support for mandating COVID-19 vaccines for employees. 

The news marks a notable shift for the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, which previously encouraged the shots but stopped short of endorsing requirements.

“Different systems may take slightly different approaches to it, their timing may be different but this is the consensus decision,” VHHA Spokesperson Julian Walker said in an interview on Monday. “Taking this step is consistent with the policies and decisions our members already have in terms of requiring vaccinations to protect their staff and to protect patients.”

So far, at least one hospital system–Northern Virginia’s Inova Health–has required staff to get vaccinated by Sept. 1.  

Walker couldn’t say with certainty that all of their members would ultimately impose mandates but he said some are in the final stages of evaluating implementation. 

In a statement, Bon Secours gave no indication that a change would be coming in the immediate future but they didn’t rule it out.

“Bon Secours strongly encourages associates to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. We are consistently reviewing local, state and national guidelines,” the statement said. 

According to Virginia Department of Health data, more than 30,000 health care workers have gotten COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and at least 59 have died.  

While frontline health care workers were among the first to be prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine, some are still holding off. 

Neither VDH nor the VHHA are keeping comprehensive data on vaccination rates among health care workers. Anecdotally, Walker said some initial hesitancy is receding.

“I’ve heard some say their staff vaccination rate is north of 70 percent…Some may be below that threshold and some may be above that threshold,” Walker said. 

David Oberg, a partner with Jones, Oberg & Green, LLP, said Virginia law does not prevent employers from mandating vaccines but reasonable accommodations must be made for religious beliefs and certain medical conditions.

Oberg said general hesitancy likely wouldn’t be an adequate justification for refusing the vaccine. However, he said what could make this case different is that none of the three manufacturers on the market right now have obtained full FDA approval at this point. 

“That’s unique,” said Oberg. “I strongly suspect the answer would be that, under the conditions of a pandemic, an employer can even require a conditional vaccine but until we have a court decision on that very specific thing we really don’t know.” 

Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly rejected several bills supported by some Republicans that would’ve blocked various COVID-19 vaccine mandates. 

Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), who is also a physician, thinks vaccine requirements are appropriate if they are coming from the private sector, not the government. She said it allows employers to make policy decisions that are conducive with their workforce needs in the community.

“I think that is the right place to decide these things. I am an advocate for the vaccine. I think we have had an unprecedented evaluation of its safety,” Dunnavant said. 

Dunnavant said she supports the VHHA’s endorsement of vaccine mandates, even under an emergency use authorization. 

“I think it is appropriate regardless. I’ve heard a lot of assertions that emergency use approval is questionable and concerning and I don’t agree with that either,” Dunnavant said. “I don’t think in this case an emergency use order is a disturbing variable. I think it’s a variable that speaks to how interested we all were in having this happen safely but quickly.” 

State Sen. Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach), a nurse practitioner, said she is vaccinated and has confidence in all of the vaccines currently available. However, she has concerns about employer mandates.

“I do not believe healthcare professionals— nor any American — should have to choose between going to work and receiving the COVID vaccine. Violating individual freedoms by imposing vaccine mandates is a dangerous move. Receiving the COVID vaccine should be an individual choice without any employer or government intervention,” Kiggans said in a statement.

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