THREE OF THE state’s health care leaders urged employers to require their workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, saying the only real protection against the Delta variant of the disease is inoculation.
The health care leaders – Pete Healy, the president of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; Peter Slavin, the president of Massachusetts General Hospital; and Dan Barouch, the director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a professor of immunology at Harvard Medical School – all appeared on a Zoom call Tuesday sponsored by the Massachusetts High Technology Council.
Slavin said his hospital system, Mass General Brigham; Beth Israel Lahey Health; and Wellforce, the parent company of Tufts Medical Center, all decided on Tuesday to require all of their employees to get vaccinated next month. They had previously announced a vaccine mandate for employees, but only after the vaccines had won full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Now the health care organizations are not waiting for full FDA approval.
“Given this Delta variant, the rising number of cases in this area, we thought it was prudent to take this additional step and require all of our employees to get vaccinated even in advance of full approval from the FDA,” said Slavin.
Most employees at all three hospital systems have already been vaccinated, but roughly 10 to 15 percent, depending on the system, have not.
“We’re going to suspend people first and give them a chance to reconsider, but I’m sure we’ll end up terminating the employment of some folks who won’t do it,” said Healy.
Both Healy and Slavin said their hospitals are expanding their masking requirements and Healy said employees working remotely at Beth Israel Deaconess will now continue to do so until at least January.
Healy said he believes government workers, school employees, and other public-facing workers should all be required to get vaccinated. “Practically speaking, I’m not sure this will happen in the course of the pandemic, but I think every employer has an obligation to protect their employees and to protect the families of their employees,” he said.
Barouch said the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and the risk posed by the Delta variant make vaccinations a priority. “A choice not to get vaccinated is not an individual decision,” he said. “It puts others at risk.”
Slavin said the Delta variant of COVID-19 is as contagious as chicken pox, but vaccines have helped moderate the disease’s impact. He said there has been an 11-fold increase in cases of COVID-19 recently but only a three-fold increase in hospitalizations.
In the recent outbreak in Provincetown, Barouch said, 74 percent of those infected were fully vaccinated but the vast majority were only marginally symptomatic. He said nasal swabs indicated similar levels of virus among the vaccinated and unvaccinated, suggesting the likelihood that even the vaccinated can still spread the disease.
The three officials also touched on several other issues:
Booster shots — Barouch said it is more important to vaccinate the unvaccinated than issuing booster shots to those already vaccinated. He and his colleagues said stamping out the disease is a worldwide challenge, with 8 billion people not vaccinated currently. Slavin said no one is safe until the world is fully vaccinated and Barouch said efforts to shield the United States from infectious visitors are unlikely to be successful. “There’s really no way to keep it out,” he said of the Delta variant.
Key lesson learned – Healy said he is confident the scientific community is prepared to handle such outbreaks in the future, but he said the United States has a lot of work to do on the public health front. “To me this has demonstrated that our country is really not very good at public health,” he said. “Decisions are county by county, state by state, school district by school district. It’s not an effective way to do public health and I hope we can find a way within the cultural fabric of the United States to do public health safer and better.”
Protecting children – Barouch urged parents to vaccinate their children. He said Pfizer’s vaccine is already approved for children 12 through 16 and the other vaccines will soon be approved for that age level as well. He said vaccines for children younger than 12 will be approved soon, probably at lower doses. Until then, Barouch said, parents should take precautions and use masks whenever possible out in the public. He didn’t say masks should be required in schools, but his comments indicated that would be a wise decision.