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Harford County

Harford County council asks Upper Chesapeake Health to reconsider vaccine mandate for medical staff

The Harford County Council has asked University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to reconsider its vaccine mandate for medical staff, issuing a formal letter saying as much.

The council, sitting as the county’s Board of Health, objected to the mandate, saying it could further understaff hospitals and increase transfer times between first responders and hospital staff, with several members adding that vaccination should be a personal choice.

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The hospital maintains that the mandate is to keep patients and medical professionals safe, as well as to stay compliant with federal directives.

At a Sept. 9 meeting of the county council, chief operating officer of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health Colin Ward said the hospital would be requiring its medical staff to get the COVID vaccine, in line with the rest of the University of Maryland Medical System.

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If a health care worker does not get vaccinated by Oct. 1, they go into administrative leave and will eventually be “considered to have resigned from their position,” Ward said.

“It is for safety and efficacy reasons alone that we have this new COVID mandate in place,” he said.

The entire University of Maryland Medical System — the state’s largest hospital network — will require health care workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 1, Ward said. When it was originally announced, the system allowed employees to get tested regularly instead of getting vaccinated. That option was later dropped.

Attendees of the Sept. 9 meeting recoiled and clamored when Ward said unvaccinated workers would resign their positions, and they had to be quieted by county council president Patrick Vincenti, who has taken to warning speakers at recent meetings to remain respectful. Opponents of the vaccine, masking in schools and other COVID safety precautions regularly attend and speak during the meetings’ public comment portions.

On Tuesday, the council distilled its objection to the vaccine mandate into a letter to be sent to the president and chief executive officer of UCH Lyle Sheldon. The letter — approved with six affirmative votes and one absent — says that dismissing unvaccinated staff could further understaff the hospital and add to wait times for first responders transferring patients to the hospital’s care. It requested UCH “consider the unintended consequences that this vaccination mandate will have” and provide the council with a plan to address staffing shortages and wait times resulting from the mandate.

Before that, on Sept. 8, Vincenti sent a letter to Sheldon saying much of the same. Sheldon responded on Monday that the hospital leads the Baltimore region with the fastest handoff times between first responders and hospital staff. He also pointed out that the hospital mandates vaccinations for other infectious diseases like MMR, influenza and others. The idea is to keep patients, and others, safe with vaccinated staff.

It is a federal mandate for all health care settings that receive Medicare and Medicaid to have the same COVID vaccination requirement in place, Sheldon wrote.

“Our patients and their families — especially those that are already unwell and susceptible to infection — expect us to put their safety first.” Sheldon’s letter stated.

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COVID has exasperated yearslong staffing shortages at hospitals, Ward said, and UCH is feeling their effects. About 4% to 5% of beds — up to nine beds — UCH would run in a non-COVID year are not being used because the hospital is understaffed, he said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, council members expressed worry that health care professionals who resign would be backfilled with internationally-recruited nurses. But spokesperson for UCH Martha Mallonee said the hospital is not “replacing” team members with staff recruited internationally as the council feared.

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Councilman Robert Wagner said the Board of Health had no power to make UCH change its position, but said the letter did not go far enough, and said personal choice to get vaccinated should carry more weight than the hospital network’s mandate.

All but one member of the county council is Republican, and many have spoken against vaccine and mask mandates. The lone Democrat, Andre Johnson, also voted to approve the letter, but for different reasons to the rest of the seven-member body. He said the real issue was readiness and whether the hospital is adequately staffed, not if it is mandating the vaccine.

“My thing is that what is Upper Chesapeake or University of Maryland’s plan of action that they are going to do in this situation,” he said.

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International recruitment of nurses and other clinical experts is widely practiced by U.S. hospitals, Mallonee said. The hospital also recruits locally, regionally and nationally, partnering with Harford Community College and other regional colleges and universities.

“We understand not everyone agrees with mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies, but as health care workers, we are held to a higher standard in service of the vulnerable populations in our care,” she said. “Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is not a choice we make for ourselves — it is a critical, necessary step toward protecting each other, our patients, our communities and those we love.”

UCH staff had until Sept. 1 to submit an exemption to the vaccination mandate. About 225 were submitted of the hospital’s more than 3,000 employees, Ward said, and the hospital is evaluating their cases.


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