Hospitals need help in COVID surge. Here’s one easy thing Gov. Greg Abbott should do

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Businesses are split over whether they should require employees to get vaccinated. But one industry is moving swiftly: hospitals.

That makes sense to all but the most unreasonable opponents of any vaccine mandate. Health care workers need protection, and the last thing we need is an outbreak centered on the very places where acute coronavirus cases are treated. Courts have backed hospital groups, rejecting specious claims that private employers can’t enforce a mandate.

Most major Dallas-Fort Worth hospital companies have created mandates, too. But under Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order on the matter, public entities such as Tarrant County’s JPS Health Network cannot follow their industry’s standard. That’s a mistake, and Abbott should rectify it.

The governor wants uniform standards for governments when it comes to masks and vaccines. We would prefer more flexibility for local officials, especially in urban areas, to make their own decisions based on pandemic conditions. Short of that, Abbott must recognize that public hospital systems play a crucial role providing healthcare in Texas’ biggest cities, and they can’t afford a heightened risk of outbreaks or losing more workers to illness or virus exposure.

Staffing is already an issue as the Delta variant is landing many more patients in hospitals than they’ve seen in months, area executives told the Star-Telegram. And the state isn’t providing the supplementary help it once did, telling hospitals to rely on cities and counties instead.

In his order, Abbott acknowledges the reality that hospitals, government run or not, might need different policies. He barred local governments from requiring mask-wearing, but he carved out an exemption for public hospitals, along with nursing homes and similar facilities. Why not make the same exception for vaccine requirements?

JPS officials say that most employees are vaccinated, more than 5,600 out of the 7,200 total workers as of Thursday. There’s no mandate, but “vaccination is strongly recommended,” said Diana Brodeur, vice president of communications for the system.

JPS has resumed its daily update of coronavirus cases, a sign of the rising threat posed by the Delta variant. As of Thursday, 63 patients were hospitalized, far short of what the hospital saw at the height of the pandemic, with more than 200 patients, she said. But that’s a leap from just a matter of weeks ago.

“JPS staff works hard on this every day and is in constant contact with community and hospital partners who share this role,” Brodeur said.

And staffing challenges in some areas are acute. For instance, the hospital usually has 30 laundry employees on duty, but on Thursday, only 12 were available, Brodeur said.

In other urban areas, some local leaders are openly defying the governor as the Delta variance explodes. Dallas County Commissioners Court was the scene of a clash over County Judge Clay Jenkins’ order for mask-wearing during a meeting. Commissioner J.J. Koch, the lone Republican on the court, refused to go along and was booted from the room; he’s now suing Jenkins, arguing that the governor’s order prohibits the mask mandate.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is requiring city employees to wear masks. And Houston schools superintendent Millard House II plans to ask the school board to approve such a policy. Some judges, too, are requiring masks, arguing that the governor’s order doesn’t cover the judicial branch.

In Tarrant County, where more Abbott-aligned Republicans hold city and county offices, such defiance is unlikely. Ultimately, courts will probably have to decide if Abbott’s order stands, but the governor’s emergency power is sweeping.

The governor’s stance on mask and vaccine mandates is unlikely to change, given the strong aversion to both among Republican primary voters he’ll need to win a third term. Texans overall may feel differently, but Abbott’s only real political threat is on his right.

That said, even among conservatives skeptical of mandates, allowing businesses to make the rules they believe necessary makes sense. Hospitals such as JPS and Parkland Memorial in Dallas are not private entities, but they have the same need to protect their patients and workforce.

The last thing we want is a tragic confluence of a return to the heights of the pandemic and crucial healthcare facilities’ lacking staff to treat the infected. Abbott should give public hospitals the tools they need to fulfill their missions.

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