Maryland’s largest hospitals and health systems, including University of Maryland Medical System and Johns Hopkins Medicine, will require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment by the end of the summer, setting the stage for immunization requirements at all other state businesses, workplaces and institutions.
Some other area medical centers and hospitals also said they would mandate it but not set deadlines until the vaccines win full federal approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Mohan Suntha, president and CEO of the University of Maryland hospital system, said officials feel confident in the safety and efficacy of the shots, now six months into the launch of the vaccination campaign in the state and around the country.
“We believe in the science, and we trust the data behind the vaccine development,” Suntha said. “We understand vaccination provides the single biggest opportunity to lead ourselves and society out of the pandemic.”
UMMS, the state’s biggest hospital network, and Johns Hopkins Medicine, were first to set dates publicly, requiring clinical and nonclinical personnel to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of the summer. GBMC Healthcare also will require workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by September.
The move comes on the heels of announcements from the leading vaccine makers that they would seek approval for their coronavirus vaccines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The vaccines have been administered to millions of people with very rare severe reactions since December.
It also follows a decision by the University System of Maryland’s 12 schools and Morgan State University to require students, faculty and staff returning to campuses this fall to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The emergency use authorization granted to Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna for their two-dose vaccines, following expedited development, had given pause to some employers both inside and outside health care in requiring the inoculation.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former state health secretary and current vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the emergency authorization designation has produced more public data than would otherwise be available for vaccines with standard approval, and the facts point to high levels of safety and effectiveness.
“The hospitals know more than anyone else what’s at stake — how serious it is, how sick people can get [from COVID-19],” Sharfstein said. “Typically a study population, of thousands of people, is observed for six months. But they have more than 100 million vaccinated.”
But state Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties, said her constituents have raised questions about the vaccines’ long-term safety and effectiveness, especially for people with autoimmune conditions and other diseases.
“We’re doing a one-size-fits-all medical approach,” she said about Wednesday’s announcement, adding that some people may have been more comfortable had it come after full FDA approval.
In December, when the vaccines were first introduced, Suntha and leaders from MedStar Health and Johns Hopkins Medicine said on a call with Baltimore business leaders that while they would not mandate COVID-19 vaccinations initially, they would strongly encourage workers to get inoculated.
“We are going to share openly the science; we’re using all the national communication,” said Kenneth A. Samet, MedStar’s CEO and president. “Our physician leaders, when their time comes, they will be first in line.”
Hospitals around the country are expected to follow suit. Houston Methodist Hospital system in Texas recently began suspending a small percentage of unvaccinated workers.
Arikan said she’s concerned that some workers will leave Maryland for states without vaccination requirements.
“Some people have legitimate, historical concerns at some of the very institutions mandating this product for them,” Arikan said.
The COVID-19 vaccine policy is in sync with long-running hospital policies for the flu vaccine, for example, which require an annual shot.
“Maryland’s dedicated hospital workers have served bravely on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19 since the first cases emerged in Maryland 15 months ago,” said Bob Atlas, president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association. “This consensus demonstrates hospitals’ commitment to caring for their communities and fulfills their promise to put patients first.”
While COVID-19 cases are dropping across the country, the move also reflects a growing push nationally to get health care workers vaccinated to prevent another wave of infections and help end the coronavirus pandemic.
Kevin Sowers, president of Johns Hopkins Health System, said the decision to require vaccinations was made with personnel, faculty, patients and the broader Maryland populace in mind.
Exceptions will be made for Hopkins workers who are pregnant and those thinking about conceiving children, he said, and Hopkins will not immediately terminate those who have concerns about it. But starting July 1, all new hires will need to get the shot.
“It’s important that we put our shoulder behind making sure people understand that this is a safe vaccine, that this is the only way we’re going to manage this pandemic moving forward,” Sowers said. “We have to help the community reach herd immunity.”
Hospitals have reported that nearly all severely sick COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.
There have been more than 33 million COVID-19 cases across the country and more than 598,000 deaths. Close to 64% of the adult population has gotten at least one shot of vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Maryland, there have been nearly 461,000 COVID-19 infections and more than 9,400 deaths, according to state health data. More than 71% of adults have gotten at least one shot.
At the University of Maryland Medical System, the policy takes effect Sept. 1 for 29,000 staff, contractors, volunteers and students working in its 13 hospitals or the system’s network of urgent care centers. Managers and executive-level staff will have until Aug. 1. Hopkins is following a similar timeline.
Those who don’t comply will have to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. After the vaccines are granted full approval, the shots will become mandatory with “limited exceptions” for medical conditions, religious beliefs and pregnancy.
Suntha would not say how many in the system have been vaccinated already, but said there are various reasons that people have so far refused. Some have conditions or beliefs, but others remain hesitant, which he said reflects the geographic and demographic diversity of the workforce.
Sowers said 79% of the clinical staff at Hopkins has been vaccinated. He said the same issues of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism found in the community also exist among its employees.
“We want to be supportive,” he said. “We will reach a point where it will be mandated for employment at Hopkins Health System and Medicine, but right now, we’re trying to work with our employees.”
MedStar, another large medical system with hospitals in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, will wait to set dates until after the vaccines gain full approval, spokeswoman Marianne Worley said, adding that 70% of associates and more than 80% of clinicians already have been immunized.
And Sharon Boston, a Lifebridge Health spokesperson, said the medical system — which includes Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Northwest Hospital, Carroll Hospital and Grace Medical Center — would strongly encourage vaccination, but also would not enforce a timeline until full approval comes.
Suntha and other system officials said the Maryland system and the affiliated medical school, which has been involved in testing the vaccines, have provided ample data to support the safety of the vaccines. And the system will continue to push the case for vaccination.
“As health care workers, it is our responsibility to do all we can to protect our patients and colleagues, and that includes getting the COVID-19 vaccine, which our research scientist colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine were instrumental in helping develop and test during clinical trials,” said Dr. Michelle Gourdine, the system’s interim chief medical officer. “We have seen firsthand the benefits of vaccination and we believe it is important for trusted organizations like ours who serve as anchor institutions within our communities to set a clear example.”