SAN DIEGO (CNS) - While some hospitals in other parts of the country face pushback from employees over mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies, San Diego-area medical centers have largely avoided the issue, with hospital representatives telling City News Service they aren't requiring workers to get the vaccine.
The uproar from some hospital employees gained national attention this week, when the Houston Methodist hospital system in Texas suspended 178 workers for failing to meet a Monday deadline to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital's mandatory vaccine policy has prompted more than 100 employees to file a lawsuit, challenging the ability to mandate vaccines that are only authorized for emergency use and are technically considered "experimental."
The suspended employees were given until June 21 to be vaccinated, or face being fired.
Officials from various San Diego-area medical centers told CNS they have not instituted any mandatory vaccine policies.
"We do not require flu or COVID-19 vaccinations for our employees and we are pleased that more than 80% of our of workforce is vaccinated and that number continues to climb each week," John Cihomsky, spokesman for Sharp Healthcare told City News Service. "In fact, more of our employees and their family members will be vaccinated this weekend at our Sharp Family Vaccination Day."
Sharp, which employs more than 19,400 people, is still maintaining a strict mask policy.
"Prior to COVID, employees who declined the flu vaccine had to stay masked when in patient care areas," Cihomsky said. "Now, with COVID, all workers, of course, are currently masked, etc., whether or not they have been vaccinated."
Jacqueline Carr, spokeswoman for UC San Diego Health, said the hospital system had similar levels of workers being vaccinated -- but it also has not made vaccines mandatory.
"More than 80% of our health care workers are vaccinated to date, with vaccinations still occurring," Carr told CNS. "Some have postponed for health, vacation or other reasons."
UCSD Health employs around 13,500 people.
Rady Children's Hospital also does not require COVID-19 vaccines for employees,
"While it is highly encouraged and the majority of our staff is vaccinated, the COVID-19 vaccine is currently not a requirement," said Carlos Delgado, spokesman for Rady.
Palomar Health said it was handling COVID-19 vaccinations like it handles the flu vaccine every year.
"For flu season, everyone who hasn't received a flu vaccine is required to wear a mask until flu season has passed, generally October through February depending on the season," Derryl Acosta, spokesman for Palomar Health, said.
"Everyone who is not vaccinated will be required to wear a mask," Acosta said. "Vaccinated staff have a sticker on their badge. At this time, following CDC guidelines, everyone is required to wear a mask so there are no issues."
More than 70% of Palomar Health's employees were vaccinated by March, but Acosta did not have an updated tally.
Scripps Health does not require vaccinations either, but Steve Carpowich, spokesman for the hospital system, said the voluntary vaccination rate is high.
"To date, 85% of Scripps employees are fully vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine, according to our EPIC medical record and our employees' self- reported responses," he told CNS. "But the actual percentage could be higher, as some employees may have received their vaccine outside of Scripps -- which would be recorded in a separate medical record -- or may have received the vaccine and not reported a response to us."
San Diego County boasts a fully vaccinated rate of more than 61% of its eligible population 12 and older, well above the 42.6% the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nationwide and the 54.6% fully vaccinated in California. In terms of total doses administered in the state, San Diego County is only behind Los Angeles County, which has a population nearly three times larger.
Health care workers were the first group of people to become eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in the county. Asked why the vaccination rate at hospitals is only about 80% given the amount of time workers have had access to the shots, Cihomsky speculated it may be related to workers' caution toward a new vaccine.
"It likely mirrors what we are seeing nationally, with some individuals taking a wait-and-see approach due to the newness of the vaccine," he said. "But our message has consistently been that everyone who can get vaccinated should get vaccinated, whether in the health care field or not."
In Houston, hospital holdouts claimed the vaccine is experimental or unsafe, with the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines not yet earning full Food and Drug Administration approval. The vaccines are administered through an emergency use authorization.
Despite that, hundreds of millions of vaccine doses have been safely administered following three rounds of clinical trials. The 117 employees who have filed suit against Houston Methodist represent a small minority of the hospital system's 26,000 employees.
Some hospitals in other parts of the country are also instituting mandatory vaccination policies, including a series of health systems in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and select hospitals in Pennsylvania and Indiana.