Nebraska health care systems to require COVID-19 vaccinations

Nebraska health systems are requiring staff to vaccinate against COVID-19, and there won't be many ways around the mandate.
Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 9:02 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 12, 2021 at 9:57 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Several leading health care systems in Nebraska announced Thursday that they will require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The announcement was in a joint statement signed by the heads of Boys Town National Research Hospital, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals, Bryan Health, Methodist, CHI Health, Midwest Surgical Hospital, Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, and Nebraska Medicine.

Chief medical officers from several of those systems participated in a video conference call following the announcement, saying now was the time to act as local COVID-19 case numbers surge.

“The pandemic is not over,” said Dr. Chris Maloney of Children’s Hospital. “...It’s around us. It is killing our neighbors.”

The statement encouraged everyone to vaccinate, and several of the doctors on the panel reiterated the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Chief medical officers from several of those systems participated in a video conference call following the announcement, saying now was the time to act.

“As the summer has drawn on, the approval from the FDA has moved on to September — it was previously, we thought, in August. We came together with the CEOs on July 30, and all of us agreed that waiting isn’t going to help our community,” said Dr. Chris Maloney of Children’s Hospital. “We waited as long as we could, and now we are going together with the vaccination.”

Dr. Cary Ward of CHI Health echoed that assessment, saying the vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective. He said the FDA delays right now are “fine details. They’re paperwork. They’re shelf lives. Storage requirements. Now, the science is clear. Nobody’s going to question the science of how effective and how safe these vaccines are.”

The joint statement is a silver lining in the pandemic, unifying the community’s health care leaders, said Dr. Harris Frankel of Nebraska Medicine.

“This is very unique. I’ve not heard of other communities having done this, and I think it speaks to the commitment that we all have as competitor health systems who want to do the best for our communities and do it together,” he said.

The start of the collaboration came when the state’s first COVID-19 case surge began in Grand Island, prompting the state’s health system leaders to work together to accommodate overflow, Dr. Ward said.

The doctors each confirmed that the majority of their health systems’ staff had already been vaccinated.

  • Nebraska Medicine staff is about 80%-85% vaccinated, with the rest either not yet vaccinated or choosing not to disclose.
  • Bryan Health is at about 85%.
  • Methodist is approaching the 80% vaccination range, with 90% of its doctors fully vaccinated.
  • Children’s Hospital is approaching the 80% mark as well, with physicians at “well over 97%,” and likely that number will increase going forward.
  • CHI Health is also at about 80%, noting that in addition to all staff, that number includes vendors as well.
  • Madonna is at 80% as well and has seen a rapid increase in vaccinations in the past month.

“It should also be noted that the vaccine is very safe. The reason it hasn’t gone through FDA approval is more around supply chain and storage and how do you get it to people than about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” said Dr. Chris Maloney of Children’s Hospital.

The requirement of the flu vaccine is an effective parallel, which most hospitals already mandate, Dr. Ward said.

“Influenza is far less severe than COVID. COVID is far more prevalent right now. The vaccine is safer — or as safe — and is more effective than the influenza vaccine,” he said. “So it makes such sense right now, if we’re going to require the influenza vaccine, we would also require the COVID vaccine.”

Several of the medical officers noted that they had surveyed their staff members about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Dr. Don Schmidt of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals said they also asked for input on the requirement.

“There’s overall essentially a collective sense of relief that’s coming in that feedback,” he said.

The group also inquired about any potential legal hurdles with a COVID-19 vaccination mandate before rolling it out, but no such lawsuit in the country has yet brought merit, Dr. Maloney said. That’s why it was important the entire group of health systems unify behind the requirement.

Leading Nebraska health care systems announced they will require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. A local attorney says that legally, they can.

“We have been doing things in combination with all of the systems since the middle of March 2020. And this is just another example. This one may be a little more prominent because for some reason a vaccination and a mask have become political — they’re not. It’s all about health care,” he said.

Ultimately, those employees who do not what to get a COVID-19 vaccination can make a choice.

“One of the questions about not getting the vaccine when it’s recommended by so many organizations is, is that person the right fit for our culture?” Dr. Maloney said. “And maybe not. And they’re allowed to make that choice. They can make that choice that they really don’t want to work at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. And that’s unfortunate... and yet, people make choices all the time.”

The leaders say the vaccine is safe and effective at protecting against serious infection and hospitalization. It said that more than 125 professional health associations and health care systems are calling for mandatory vaccination of health care professionals, and they are doing it.

Unvaccinated employees and physicians will be allowed to apply to their employer for a medical or religious exemption.

The statement went on to say, “Each of our organizations take very seriously the responsibility of providing health care to people of all ages and all backgrounds in our communities. Vaccinations against COVID-19 is an important step to stop the pandemic and allow our teams to work in the safest way possible.”

They encourage all eligible people in the community to get vaccinated.

The group also said during Thursday’s news conference that they had also lobbied the governor’s office, through the state’s top medical officer, to reinstate Nebraska’s COVID-19 dashboard and were told the state was working to do just that. But the governor’s office later stated there were no plans to do so.

“Data’s powerful. Data can be educational. It certainly helps us gain line of sight to what’s happening across the state. It helps us plan for what might be expected or be asked of us,” Dr. Frankel said.

Nebraska pediatric units are full, and while it's not because of COVID-19, that could play a part in making things worse.

Dr. Maloney said hospitals are preparing to retool operational plans in preparation for this next surge of COVID-19.

He said Children’s Hospital has consistently had five or fewer patients in the hospital for COVID-19, noting that they’ve seen a significant increase in viruses like RSV, which typically peak in the winter.

Children’s currently has 132 patients in their 145 beds, he said, but at the end of the month, they will be opening their brand new 80-bed unit. Until then, they still have beds available, he said, but a surge in COVID-19 patients would be difficult to accommodate.

Dr. Maloney said there are children with COVID-19 in Nebraska, but not nearly at the same levels that states in the south are seeing: “COVID admissions like they’ve never seen before.” He said Nebraska is currently following the same trends as that area of the country, particularly with the delta variant, and will see the same levels “if we don’t employ the non-pharmaceutical interventions such as masking, social distancing, keeping our hands clean.”

CHI Health said they are prepared to assist Children’s Hospital, should there be an influx in pediatric patients, and that they anticipate admitting an increased number of COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks.

Methodist is also concerned about accommodating a surge, noting they’re at high capacity for surgical and ICU beds.

Dr. Frankel said the group also weighed the possibility of some staff quitting over the vaccine mandate and worked hard to understand any vaccine hesitancy and educate staff to convert it into “vaccine confidence.” In Houston, where one of the nation’s first health system mandates occurred, he said, their turnover was less than half of 1%.

Dr. Maloney acknowledged, too, that there are valid exemptions, and several of the doctors said those exemptions would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But experts who specialize in employment law say even with those exemptions, you may not keep your job.

Many of the doctors said on the call, however, that they had received a very positive response since word of the COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

Read their statement

Watch Thursday’s news conference

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