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Hospitals considering COVID-19 vaccination mandates for employees

A federal judge’s decision in a Texas case has hospitals around the state considering whether to mandate that their employees get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Officials for both health care networks with hospitals in southeastern Connecticut — Yale New Haven Health and Hartford HealthCare — said this week they’ve made no decisions regarding their current COVID-19 vaccination policies for employees. Neither network mandates that employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus disease.

“Like all health organizations, we are considering this, but haven’t made any official decisions,” Jim Cardon, chief clinical integration officer for Hartford HealthCare, said via email Thursday. Hartford HealthCare’s affiliates include Backus Hospital in Norwich.

In a remote news conference earlier this week, Marna Borgstrom, chief executive officer of Yale New Haven Health, which includes Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London as well as Westerly Hospital, said she had read a summary of the judge’s decision rejecting Houston Methodist Hospital employees’ claim that the hospital’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy was unlawful.

Borgstrom said the decision was “a very encouraging sign” and she expected to see many more hospitals adopt COVID-19 vaccination mandates for employees, as some Maryland hospitals have done.

“If you were to ask my opinion, I think that we will do that,” she said of Yale New Haven Health eventually mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for employees. “It won’t be a first," she added, "We mandate flu vaccines every year for all of our employees with very limited exceptions ..."

Currently, 79% of Yale New Haven Health’s employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19, as have 73% of Hartford HealthCare employees, according to spokesmen for the networks.

In the Texas case, 117 hospital employees sued over a hospital policy announced April 1 requiring all employees to be vaccinated by June 7 or be fired. In their suit, the employees argued that the COVID-19 vaccines “are experimental and dangerous,” a claim U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes rejected as “false” and “irrelevant.”

Hughes found that Texas law only protects employees from being terminated for refusing to commit illegal acts and that Houston Methodist’s vaccination policy violated neither public policy nor federal law.

“Although her claims fail as a matter of law, it is also necessary to clarify that Bridges has not been coerced,” Hughes wrote, referring to Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who was the lead plaintiff in the suit. “Bridges says that she is being forced to be injected with a vaccine or be fired. This is not coercion. Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.” 

In declaring their reluctance to get vaccinated, some health care workers have pointed to the emergency use authorizations the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted for the COVID-19 vaccines, as opposed to full approvals. Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna recently have applied for full approvals, a process that could take months.

Last month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidance in which it affirmed its approval of employers’ ability to require employees to be vaccinated as long as employers offer reasonable accommodations to employees who decline vaccination due to a disability or a sincerely held religious belief.

COVID-19 update

In Connecticut, cases of COVID-19 continued to dwindle Thursday, according to data released by Gov. Ned Lamont’s office.

Thirty-five new cases of the disease were reported out of 11,801 tests, a positivity rate of 0.3%. Hospitalizations fell by 13 to 37, and one additional death raised the state toll since the pandemic began in March 2020 to 8,266.

L+M, Backus and Westerly hospitals all reported they had no COVID-19 patients.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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