The state’s largest hospital systems on Thursday said they will mandate that all of their employees get vaccinated against COVID-19 as part of a moral imperative to keep patients safe.
Leaders of Mass General Brigham, Beth Israel Lahey Health, Wellforce, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute said requiring vaccination for employees is critical for protecting vulnerable patients, especially those who are immunocompromised.
Together, these hospital systems employ more than 135,000 people. All employees, including those who don’t work directly with patients, must get vaccinated, though they can request exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
Dr. Anne Klibanski, chief executive of Mass General Brigham, said there is now overwhelming evidence that COVID vaccines are safe and effective.
“Getting vaccinated right now is the single most important thing that we can do to let our employees know that we are providing the safest environment for patients, their families, and for each other,” she told the Globe.
Hospital leaders did not set a deadline for employees to be vaccinated. They said they would wait until the US Food & Drug Administration grants full approval of the vaccines, which could take weeks or months. (The FDA has authorized the vaccines for emergency use.)
Hospital workers have been eligible for the COVID vaccines for months, and most have received their shots. After watching COVID patients suffer and die, many caregivers rushed at the chance to be vaccinated and became emotional as the needle went into their arms.
Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey, the two biggest health care providers in Massachusetts, both said that about 85 percent of their workers have been vaccinated.
But the health care workforce is large and diverse, and not everyone has been enthusiastic about the vaccines.
One labor union representing health care workers immediately objected to the new requirements — though hospitals appear to have the legal right to implement them.
“Vaccination is an important tool to help us move forward, but an employer mandate is not the answer for a healthcare workforce still struggling to recover,” said Tim Foley, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, which represents nurses as well as technical and clerical workers.
“A hard-handed approach will create greater frustration,” Foley said in a statement.
David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said the union will review each hospital’s specific policy before taking a position.
“We have encouraged our members to get the vaccine, and we believe the vast majority have already done so,” he said.
Many hospitals already require their workers to get annual flu shots. The nurses union opposes flu vaccination mandates and in the past has sued — unsuccessfully — to try to block such requirements.
Dr. Kevin Tabb, chief executive of Beth Israel Lahey, said his health system has a responsibility to protect patients and employees, and that it must lead by example.
“We’re an institution that is based on science,” he said in an interview. “We know the vaccine is extraordinarily effective, and we know that it’s safe. … We stand on much stronger moral ground asking others to get vaccinated when we ourselves have been vaccinated.”
At Wellforce, the hospital system that includes Tufts Medical Center, executives sent an e-mail to employees saying: “COVID-19 is still with us. The Delta variant is becoming more prominent in the United States, and it is vitally important that we continue to do everything we can to protect our patients and ourselves.”
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute told its employees: “Because our patients are especially vulnerable, we will strictly enforce compliance.” Cancer patients are at greater risk because they may have weakened immune systems from their treatments.
UMass Memorial Health Care eventually plans to mandate the vaccine for its workers, said Dr. Eric Dickson, the chief executive. Seventy-six percent of employees are vaccinated now, which Dickson called “disappointing.”
“I fully anticipate that we will mandate [vaccination] and that other health care systems in the state will,” he said.
“I think we will probably have some people leave their jobs because they don’t want to get vaccinated,” he said, “and that will make it even harder to staff places that are already struggling to get staffing.”
Boston Medical Center and Steward Health Care said they’re still evaluating whether to make vaccinations mandatory.
In requiring the COVID vaccine, Massachusetts hospitals are following the lead of those in other states, including Texas, Maryland, and New York.
Houston Methodist Hospital has drawn national attention for its vaccination requirement and a lawsuit from some of its employees that challenged the mandate. Earlier this month, a federal court sided with the hospital. A Houston Methodist spokeswoman said 153 employees resigned or were fired over the requirement.
The fact that Massachusetts hospitals are waiting for full FDA approval before they require vaccination puts them on firmer legal ground, experts told the Globe.
“Once the full approval is in place, I do not see the likelihood of an effective challenge against this,” said Robert Kilroy, a partner at the law firm Mirick O’Connell.
Michael Ulrich, assistant professor of health law and ethics at Boston University, said courts generally have upheld vaccine mandates. “And with health care workers,” he said, “you have an even stronger justification for the employers to require it, because you have vulnerable people that are more at risk.”
Governor Charlie Baker, asked about the vaccination mandates Thursday, said, “As far as I’m concerned, that’s their call.”
“At this point in time, I would prefer to let organizations make the decisions they think are going to keep their people safest,” Baker said at an appearance in Quincy. “But different people are in different places with respect to this, and I think we should respect that as well.”
Correspondent Camille Caldera and Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.