A COVID-19 outbreak at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center demonstrates the conundrum faced by companies in the age of coronavirus. While employers are in a difficult position, PeaceHealth must work to better protect its patients and its employees; the health standards for a hospital must be higher than those of the average business.
As of Wednesday, 29 COVID cases had been attributed to the PeaceHealth outbreak — 20 among patients and nine among health care workers. Hospital officials said 10 of the infected people had been fully vaccinated but did not say how many of those were employees. Earlier, one of four infected employees had been fully vaccinated.
PeaceHealth does not require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lawrence Neville said the hospital has a “diversity of health care workers with different options and different sources of information for vaccine safety.” The Columbian reported that “he said further strategies are being reviewed to mandating staff vaccinations, but he was unable to elaborate on what those efforts might be.”
Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, Clark County’s other full-service hospital, also does not require vaccinations for employees. The Legacy system, based in Portland, follows a 1989 Oregon law prohibiting health care companies from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment.
As demonstrated by the recent outbreak, the stance of PeaceHealth and Legacy endangers both patients and staff members. A hospital should be the last place an unsuspecting patient must worry about contracting coronavirus.
According to the Washington State Department of Health: “Washington state does not have any mandates for getting vaccinated against COVID-19, but employers may choose to require it.” Human resource experts explain that employers may ask about vaccination status, but must be careful to avoid demanding additional medical information.
If employers are allowed to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees, a hospital should be the first place to do so. Inevitably, many patients and visitors who come through the doors will not be vaccinated — either by choice or because of underlying medical conditions. And others who have been vaccinated can still be susceptible to the disease — as demonstrated in the PeaceHealth case.
The issue is one affecting all public-facing businesses. Last month, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidance saying employers may legally require COVID vaccinations for employees to reenter the workplace, and that companies must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who are exempt from mandatory immunization.
The situation can be complicated, but hospitals can look to schools for guidance. All states have requirements that school children be inoculated against common childhood diseases in order to attend class. We should expect hospitals to be as concerned about public health as schools.
As overseers of that health, PeaceHealth officials appear to have three choices: Require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19; make provisions for unvaccinated employees to avoid direct contact with patients; or inform patients that an employee has not been vaccinated and allow that patient to request a different provider — an option that might be untenable under disclosure laws.
Either way, local hospitals must be more diligent in protecting the public from COVID-19.