COVID-19 shot optional for most Central Florida hospital employees, even as Pfizer gets full FDA approval

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Central Florida’s largest hospital systems aren’t requiring front-line staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, although that could change with federal regulators giving full approval to the Pfizer shot and President Joe Biden calling for more employer mandates.

AdventHealth, Central Florida’s largest hospital system, is considering a vaccine mandate for its workforce.

“We are actively studying this right now,” said Dr. Steven R. Smith, AdventHealth’s chief scientific officer. “I would just say stay tuned.”

The Food and Drug Administration’s approval Monday of the Pfizer shot marks a milestone in the vaccination effort, said Justin Senior, CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida.

“The full FDA approval will probably impact that decision and make it more likely,” said Senior, whose group represents public hospitals and other safety-net providers. “This is a seal of approval that the vaccines are safe and effective.”

Before Monday’s approval, all three COVID-19 vaccinations were being given under an emergency use authorization. Now, Pfizer’s vaccine has the same approval as the flu shot, which many hospital employees are required to receive.

Employees at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 6, hospital officials announced earlier this month. About 71% have been vaccinated so far, said Margot Winick, a hospital spokesperson.

HCA Healthcare, which operates five Central Florida hospitals, is “strongly encouraging” vaccination for staff but not requiring it, said Trip Farmer, a company spokesperson. HCA’s Orlando-area hospitals are Osceola Regional Medical Center, Central Florida Regional Hospital, Oviedo Medical Center, Poinciana Medical Center and UCF Lake Nona Medical Center.

Orlando Health did not have a statement prepared Monday with the FDA’s approval being reviewed by hospital officials, said Kena Lewis, a hospital spokesperson.

Elsewhere in Florida, Jackson Memorial Health System in Miami, Baptist Health South Florida, Baptist Health in Jacksonville and Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County have issued vaccine requirements for employees. Ascension Health, which operates hospitals in North Florida, is also requiring employees to get vaccinated.

About 30% of hospitals nationwide have mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for their workforce, according to an Aug. 13 estimate by Becker’s Hospital Review.

Biden urged more companies to implement vaccine mandates with the FDA granting full approval of the Pfizer shot, saying, “it only makes sense to require a vaccine to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

Hospitals are facing challenges as they respond to the biggest COVID-19 wave of the pandemic, Senior said. Some staff members have concerns about the vaccines, but the FDA’s full approval should help increase confidence, he said.

“There has been pushback,” Senior said. “You are in a surge. You need your staff. You need your morale to be high. A lot of hospitals have put off this question until we get through this surge.”

National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the United States, has called COVID-19 vaccines “critically important,” while stressing the need for “medical and religious accommodations.”

Federal guidance calls for “reasonable accommodations” for employees who can’t take the vaccine because of a valid medical reason or a “sincerely held religious belief.” Such accommodations could include undergoing regular COVID-19 testing.

Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief health officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said hospitals owe it to their patients to move quickly.

“You would never want to go into a hospital for a procedure and be at risk of catching COVID from one of the health care workers that sees you,” she said. “What we strongly believe is patient safety comes first.”

Biden announced this past week his administration will require nursing homes to vaccinate their staff or face the loss of Medicare and Medicaid funding. Federal workers will also need to be vaccinated or face extensive COVID-19 restrictions, including weekly testing.

Some large Central Florida employers not in the health care sector have issued vaccine requirements recently.

Walt Disney Co. and Orange County government recently mandated that nonunion employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. Stetson University also issued a requirement for employees.

sswisher@orlandosentinel.com

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