Nearly all hospitals in Massachusetts will require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the virus resurges and thousands of health care workers in the state remain unvaccinated.
Members of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, an industry group, collectively agreed Thursday to set mandatory vaccination policies for all of their workers. They said vaccine requirements are necessary to keep patients and staff safe and to prevent patients from delaying medical care for fear of catching the virus at a hospital.
The association represents all acute-care hospitals in the state except for those owned by Steward Health Care. Each hospital will develop its own policies and deadlines.
Hospital workers who don’t get vaccinated could risk losing their jobs, unless they’re granted exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
By announcing the policy together, hospitals are reducing the possibility that workers who don’t want to be vaccinated would leave one employer to work at another where the vaccine is not mandated.
“We felt it was important to take a stand together,” said Christine Schuster, chief executive of Emerson Hospital in Concord. “Our patients need to know when they’re sick and they come to the hospital, they’re going to be safe and protected.
“None of us want to take jobs away,” she said, “but as health care organizations, we do have to keep people safe.”
The hospital association adopted the new policy after several hospital systems, including the state’s biggest, Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey Health, previously announced vaccination mandates. Others requiring employees to get their jabs include Wellforce, the parent company of Tufts Medical Center, and Boston Medical Center. These hospital systems all said vaccination will be mandatory after the US Food and Drug Administration grants full approval to the COVID vaccines, which are currently authorized for emergency use.
Baystate Health of Springfield, however, isn’t waiting for that step and said employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 1. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute initially said it would wait for full FDA approval, but on Friday, citing rising COVID numbers, Dana-Farber revised its policy and said employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 1.
UMass Memorial Health Care of Worcester is planning a similar approach, said Dr. Eric Dickson, the chief executive. “At this point, with cases on the rise and an unclear pathway to full FDA approval, we are going to likely pick a date in the fall [when we’ll] mandate vaccination for all of our employees,” he said.
Growing numbers of hospitals across the country have begun requiring employees to get their shots. Some other private employers have announced mandates, while the Biden administration said Thursday that federal employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing and other rules.
Medical experts believe that increasing vaccination rates is critical to stemming the latest spike in infections triggered by the highly contagious Delta variant.
More than 74 percent of adults in Massachusetts are fully vaccinated — the second-highest rate in the country — but infections and hospitalizations here, too, are rising again.
Across the state, 176 COVID patients were hospitalized Thursday, about double the number in hospitals at the beginning of the month.
“We’re very surprised to see the number of infections and the number of hospitalizations that we’re seeing — disappointed and surprised,” said Dickson, who also chairs the board of the state hospital association. “The best way to end this is to get everyone vaccinated.”
Tim Foley, executive vice president of the labor union 1199SEIU, said hospitals should focus on educating workers and ensuring that they have good access to vaccines, including paid time off to receive their shots and recover from any side effects. The union represents environmental and food service workers, lab technicians, nursing assistants, and other hospital workers.
“We don’t feel a mandate that could lead to termination is the right approach for the health care workers who have been at the front lines of this pandemic,” he said. “There are barriers, particularly for low-wage workers, to get access to vaccine.”
Health care workers were among the first people eligible for COVID vaccines and started receiving their shots seven months ago. Many were eager to gain protection against a disease whose terrible effects they had seen up close.
Employee vaccination rates at the state’s hospitals range from about 70 percent to about 90 percent — but vaccinations have been dropping off. Beth Israel Lahey Health said about 85 percent of its workforce is inoculated against COVID, the same rate as five weeks ago when the health system announced that it would mandate vaccination.
“With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Massachusetts yet again, the importance of vaccination has never been more evident,” Steve Walsh, president of the hospital association, said in a statement. “This is a time to step up the urgency surrounding vaccination in our state, and our health care leaders believe that must start within the walls of their own facilities.”
Steward Health Care, which operates hospitals in communities including Boston, Taunton, and Norwood, has not announced a vaccination policy and did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
While more hospitals are mandating vaccinations, nursing homes have been more reluctant to require the shots because of concerns about losing workers amid a labor shortage. The Massachusetts Senior Care Association has called for a government mandate for all health care and elder care workers to be vaccinated.
The Massachusetts Medical Society on Thursday said it supports vaccination mandates for all health care workers and that patients deserve to know whether the staff they encounter in health care facilities have received their shots.
This story was updated on Friday.