In March, Houston Methodist became the first major U.S. healthcare system to require mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. We started with managers and new hires in phase 1, and now, all 26,000 employees and employed physicians must be vaccinated by June 7.
Since the first vaccine received emergency use authorization, more than 240 million doses have been administered in the U.S. alone. With supplies of the vaccine more abundant, it’s time that all healthcare systems follow our example and begin requiring that employees get vaccinated. This sends an important message that health systems are doing everything possible to keep patients safe, and positions us as role models for those hesitant to get vaccinated.
As healthcare workers we’ve taken a sacred oath to do everything possible to keep our patients safe and healthy — this includes getting vaccinated. This isn’t the first time our industry has stepped up and made vaccines mandatory. Not long ago, flu vaccines were voluntary for healthcare workers; but today, 17 states require them. The toll of this pandemic shows that we should treat COVID-19 far more seriously than the flu. According to the CDC, flu in the U.S. has accounted for 12,000 to 61,000 deaths per year since 2010. The CDC also reports that the last two major flu outbreaks, in 1957 and 1968, accounted for 116,000 and 100,000 deaths in the U.S., respectively. If we mandate flu vaccines for these numbers, we must also mandate COVID-19 vaccines given how much more deadly it is.
Frontline workers have battled courageously against COVID-19, working long hours to keep patients alive. They’ve risked their own health, regardless of the many precautions we take to keep them safe. Behind the scenes, researchers and physicians have worked tirelessly to find new treatments to keep those who do contract the disease from facing its worst outcomes — including death. While we’ve made tremendous strides, our best shot at defeating the virus continues to be vaccinating enough Americans to create herd immunity.
Since Houston Methodist began vaccinating employees on December 11, 2020, we’ve vaccinated more than 89% of our staff. Already we’re seeing positive results: the number of employee infections has dropped as the number of vaccinated employees has risen.
It appears we’ve successfully created herd immunity at Houston Methodist.
Quickly creating herd immunity is critical before the virus mutates into strains that set us further back. The more time we give this virus to spread, the more time we give it to mutate. Already we’ve seen different variants that are proving to be more formidable than the original strain. For example, the U.K. variant has proven to be more contagious than its predecessor, and a genome sequencing team at Houston Methodist estimates it’s now the prevalent variant in the region.
The pandemic continues to pose threats to public health, beyond just the threat of the virus itself. Already, well over half a million Americans have died as a result of the virus, but this does not include those who have lost their life indirectly as a result of this virus. Last year, hospitals around the country learned that thousands of patients ignored serious health warnings and chose not to go to hospitals or emergency departments, fearing they’d catch COVID-19. They preferred to stay home and deal with the consequences rather than risk catching the virus. We need to give patients the peace of mind they deserve from knowing that our hospitals are safe from COVID-19.
Beyond safety, requiring mandatory vaccinations also allows us to set an example for those who are hesitant to get vaccinated. Leaders at all levels have championed the vaccine and are taking action to educate people who are reluctant to get vaccinated. By mandating vaccines, healthcare institutions will show the world that we trust the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and inspire others to follow.
Most healthcare workers will agree that the path toward a return to “normal” must be firmly centered on vaccinating as many Americans as possible to create herd immunity. Healthcare institutions can help get us there, not only by administering the vaccine, but also, by setting an example. So, healthcare systems and employers, please join Houston Methodist in making the vaccine mandatory for staff — and do so quickly. The sooner we’re able to end this pandemic, the fewer lives will be lost and the closer we can get to normal.
Marc L. Boom, MD, is president and CEO of Houston Methodist, a 1,000-plus bed hospital network in Houston.