George Stockburger,JUAN A. LOZANO and BRIAN MELLEY/AP
(WETM) – As more Americans return to work, employers are facing questions about whether or not they will require their staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The question is even bigger for hospitals where doctors and nurses have faced the virus for over a year.
In Texas, a federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by 117 employees at Houston Methodist Hospital who argued that the hospitals vaccine requirement was unfair and violated their rights.
“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,” U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote in dismissing the lawsuit.
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18 News reached out to local hospitals and health providers to see if they will join other hospitals across the country in requiring the vaccine.
Of the five healthcare providers 18 News reached out to in New York and Pennsylvania, all five confirmed they are not currently requiring the vaccine for staff.
Arnot Health tells 18 News that about 70% of their staff has already been vaccinated, and Guthrie says their staff vaccination rate is about double the region’s rate. Steuben County has the lowest rate of residents with at least one shot at 42.2 percent and 51.5 percent fully vaccinated, while Chemung County is at 43.2 percent with one shot and 52.4 percent with both doses.
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Guthrie’s Chief Quality Officer Dr. Michael Scalzone says that while the vaccine is not currently mandated, they are discussing the possibility.
“We feel like we’ve gotten good uptake of the vaccine in our health care workers. That said, we still have opportunity to get more of our workers vaccinated and we are seeing more and more people accept the vaccine daily.”
Dr. Scalzone says that any potential requirement would include all staff, ranging from those without direct contact with patients such as cafeteria or sanitation workers to those who are in contact, such as nurses and doctors. Currently, other vaccines such as the flu shot are required of staff.
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St. James Hospital, an affiliate of the University of Rochester Medical Center, says they are not aware of any regulations in NYS requiring COVID vaccination of hospital employees and they are not aware of URMC or any other affiliate considering a mandate for staff.
Cayuga Health issued a similar statement affirming they are not requiring the vaccine.
We are unaware of any regulations saying that health care staff workers are required to get vaccinated in New York State, therefore it is not a requirement for our staff. We have vaccines readily available for any of our staff members wishing to receive the vaccination, but it is not mandated.
John Turner, VP of Public Relations, Cayuga Health (Schuyler Hospital and Cayuga Medica Center)
Laurel Health Centers, which operates outpatient clinics in Pennsylvania, confirmed they are also not requiring the vaccine.
Legal experts say such vaccine requirements, particularly in a public health crisis, will probably continue be upheld in court as long as employers provide reasonable exemptions, including for medical conditions or religious objections.
The Houston Methodist employees likened their situation to medical experiments performed on unwilling victims in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The judge called that comparison “reprehensible” and said claims made in the lawsuit that the vaccines are experimental and dangerous are false.
“These folks are not being imprisoned. They’re not being strapped down. They’re just being asked to receive the vaccination to protect the most vulnerable in hospitals and other health care institutional settings,” said Valerie Gutmann Koch, an assistant law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System, the largest private employer in Philadelphia, and the New York-Presbyterian hospital system have likewise indicated employees who aren’t fully vaccinated would lose their jobs.
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Hospital employees and others have argued that such requirements are illegal because the COVID-19 vaccines are being dispensed under emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration and have not received final FDA approval. But Koch said emergency use does not mean people are being experimented on, and she added that FDA approval is expected.
Allison K. Hoffman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said claims made by Houston Methodist employees that they are being used as human guinea pigs or that vaccine policy violates the Nuremberg Code, a set of rules for medical experimentation that were developed in the wake of Nazi atrocities, “are bordering on absurd.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report