More Wisconsin Hospitals Mandate COVID-19 Vaccine For Employees

Some Hospitals Are Hesitating To Issue Employee Requirements On Vaccination, DOJ Says Requirement Is Legal

A nurse fills a syringe with COVID-19 vaccine
In this March 19, 2021, photo, a nurse fills a syringe with COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination site in Kansas City, Mo. Orlin Wagner/AP Photo

More hospitals in Wisconsin are requiring their workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but not all. Holdouts remain even as other hospitals with high voluntary rates of vaccination have now decided to mandate it as the more contagious delta variant drives coronavirus cases upward in communities across the state.

Most recently, Prevea Health, Advocate Aurora Health, UW Health, Essentia Health, Marshfield Clinic Health System and Froedtert Health announced their staff members will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The purpose is to not only protect staff but also to protect patients who might not be vaccinated.

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UW Health, which says 90 percent of staff are already fully vaccinated, announced Wednesday they will require all employees to get the vaccine.

“If we were to get COVID-19, it’s possible we’d have mild symptoms, but if you take care of someone who has had a bone marrow transplant or liver transplant, those patients can’t be vaccinated because the vaccine just doesn’t take, or they have a medical reason,” said Dr. Nasia Safdar, director of Infection Control at UW Hospital and Clinics.

Other providers that earlier issued similar vaccination requirements include Ascension, Children’s Wisconsin, SSM Health, Mayo Clinic, ProHealth Care and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The legality of doing so has been challenged, but not successfully.

In June, a federal judge tossed a lawsuit against the first hospital in the nation to issue a vaccine mandate for its employees, Houston Methodist Hospital. The U.S. Department of Justice has issued guidance that a federal law authorizing emergency use for drugs does not prohibit employers from requiring a vaccine, even if it hasn’t received full approval yet.

“We feel very confident that we stand in good legal stead to do this,” said Dr. Jon Pryor of Essentia Health, which has 13,000 employees in Wisconsin, North Dakota and Minnesota.

Still, holdouts remain for several reasons.

A decision on full approval of the vaccines by the Food and Drug Administration could come soon, but is still pending. And the communities where many hospitals operate are sometimes deeply divided on vaccination and the pandemic.

In north-central Wisconsin, Aspirus has strongly encouraged staff to get a shot and is working to increase vaccination rates in the communities they serve, said spokesperson Andrew Krause. Vaccines are an “essential tool” in fighting the pandemic. The health system isn’t ruling out mandatory staff vaccination, he said.

“We reserve the right to introduce new policies and initiatives, up to and including making COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment,” according to a statement from Aspirus.

One national estimate says 1 in 4 hospital workers who have direct contact with patients aren’t immunized against COVID-19 as of the end of May. The number of doctors vaccinated around the country tends to be higher than nurses and other health care staff.

The Wisconsin Nurses Association doesn’t know how many nurses in the state have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Gina Dennik-Champion, Wisconsin Nurses Association executive director, said the organization recently adopted a position supporting mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations based on what the American Nurses Association has cited: new variants, lagging COVID-19 vaccination rates and continued public skepticism.

In addition to mandatory vaccination for hospital workers, Dennik-Champion said the public needs to be encouraged to wear masks indoors, regardless of vacciantion status.

“What we’re seeing in Florida in terms of a surge, we don’t want to have to go through that experience here in Wisconsin. And masking can make a difference,” she said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Tony Evers said he won’t issue a statewide mask mandate and cities like Madison and Milwaukee have relied on voluntary compliance so far.

Meanwhile, efforts to increase vaccination through incentives continue.

The Milwaukee County Zoo is donating zoo passes to any student who can prove that they’re fully immunized.

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health announced the Wisconsin State Fair would give a voucher for a free cream puff to those who get vaccinated at an on-site clinic open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 15.