Covid shots are voluntary. Mostly. But pressures are growing on unvaccinated.

cnnhoustonvaxprotest-300x169In the crunch to quell the coronavirus pandemic and to do so by getting as many people as possible their protective shots, public health officials consistently have stressed a big V in the national vaccination campaign: Voluntary.

But as hundreds of millions of people around the globe have willingly gotten them and the vaccines have shown to be overwhelmingly safe and effective, the unvaccinated may get leaned on with more than pleas, nudges, and incentives.

They may notice this quiet push in the workplace, especially if they hold health-related jobs, and at schools. The result may be to resurface the fiery and counter-factual anti-vaccination extremism in the country.

In Texas, for example, a major health system found itself with angry pushback from a slice of its 26,000 or so staffers when it set a deadline and told its employees they had to get the coronavirus shot, explain why they could not — for health or religious reasons, for example — or face discipline. Houston Methodist followed up and suspended 178 staff members who refused. Roughly 200 employees staged a walkout and protest (see screenshot from CNN report, above). A hundred or so have sued the hospital, though a federal judge dismissed their case quickly and rejected their claims.

The situation has received national attention as hospitals, for example, in Maryland and the District of Columbia have said they soon will require health workers to get the Covid shots. Hospital officials in the capital area say that their research shows that 70% or so of their health workers have gotten vaccinated.

The reluctant or resistant say they want further proof of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, and some assert that they cannot be compelled to undergo a medical intervention without their approval.

Hospital leaders say health workers are distinctive: They work with the already sick and injured and it is unacceptable for them to increase patients’ health risks by forgoing coronavirus vaccinations. Health staffers, they emphasize, already are held to high protective standards, with specialized training and, yes, getting tests and vaccinations against other infections.

Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities also slowly have taken a harder line on coronavirus vaccinations with their underpaid, over-worked, stressed out, and shrinking health staff. Industry leaders have set a goal of ensuring that 75% of staff at long-term care facilities get vaccinated. Federal regulators have put muscle behind that target, posting online vaccination rates at individual facilities and warning owners and operators that they must provide timely, regular data on this key measurement. Regulators also have said they will step up inspections at facilities where vaccinations of residents and staff lag.

What about other workplaces and health information privacy?

While federal officials have issued workplace rules in the health industry, they have, for now, sidestepped the potential fury about what employers and employees must do as the pandemic eases, vaccination rates go up, and in-person work surges anew.

Officials have sought to debunk rampant social media claims, for example, about nonexistent applications of federal health privacy laws to workplace issues. In brief, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, aka HIPAA, “affects health care providers, health plans, and health care clearinghouses – and their business associates,” as a news site covering the issue explains. It reported this:

“If an employer asks an employee to provide proof that they have been vaccinated in order to allow that individual to work without wearing a facemask, that is not a HIPAA violation as HIPAA does not apply to most employers. It would not be a HIPAA violation for an employer to ask an employee’s health care provider for proof of vaccination.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with protecting people from discrimination, including in the workplace and due to health concerns and disabilities, has provided online a long, informative posting about Covid-19, employers, employees, and work sites. A pertinent, bold-faced section of that post is worth repeating and it refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Pregnancy Discrimination Act (Title VII):

“The federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for Covid-19, subject to the reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII and the ADA and other EEO considerations discussed below.  These principles apply if an employee gets the vaccine in the community or from the employer.”

Employees of all kinds will, no doubt, hear robust, close communications from employers, HR folks, as well as state and local officials about jobs and workplace rules and coronavirus safeguards as the world opens up and returns to greater normality.

Parents wrestle with getting kids vaccinated

Parents already are dealing with these matters, big time, of course, especially as vaccine makers have submitted convincing enough evidence of the safety and effectiveness of their products to persuade federal officials to allow them for everyone down to age 12.

Many colleges and universities, public and private, have leaped in already and told students and parents that Covid vaccinations will be required this fall. But vaccination requirements for K-12 students, typically, are set by states, not school districts. Extremists already have turned student vaccination laws into a brutal political issue. In California, for example, protesters dumped blood on lawmakers who were considering, and approved, a crackdown on doctors who were issuing dubious health exemptions for youngsters from vaccinations already required to attend public schools.

State lawmakers, so far, have not turned to requiring coronavirus shots for K-12 students, partly because the vaccines still for now are administered under an emergency use approved by federal regulators. Those experts typically wait for a longer period to see if vaccines’ risky side-effects emerge. As the Wall Street Journal reported, quoting Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a public-health law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law:

“[S]tate lawmakers haven’t shown much interest in mandating Covid-19 vaccines for K-12 students, which isn’t surprising, according to Ms. Reiss. For starters, the vaccine has been approved only for use in kids 12 and up. So, making an argument that a vaccine is necessary might prove hard if only half the school population can receive it, said Ms. Reiss. Lawmakers are unlikely to push for a mandate until the vaccine is approved for use by all school-age children. Another reason is that all three Covid-19 vaccines are currently approved under an emergency-use authorization, said Ms. Reiss. While that status doesn’t necessarily preclude a mandate, it does weaken the legal standing.”

Studies are under way to determine if the coronavirus vaccines can be safe and effective in kids younger than 12, with results potentially coming out in the fall.

Federal officials, by the way, have emphasized that parents should not put off any longer pandemic-delayed regular vaccinations for kids, especially as their socializing increases and they soon head back to in-person classes. This puts them as well as their peers and whole communities at high risk of outbreaks of preventable, harmful infections like measles, whooping cough, meningitis, and more.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by an array of awful circumstances and things, including:

In these cases, a crowd of problem people and institutions — these can include doctors, hospitals, insurers, regulators, and politicians — may press victims to move on, settle up, and they fast forget the lonely agony of the suffering. It can, however, take a long time for patients to recover from terrible illness or injury. Harms can last a lifetime. Patients may need medical services, as well as financial and other support for months or years. They also need closure and justice for wrongs done, as well as the sense that they may be able to help others avoid the problems that afflicted them.

We are not done with the coronavirus and the huge trauma it has inflicted on us all. Please get vaccinated. All medical interventions carry risk. But vaccines’ benefits long have been shown to far outweigh their harms. We’ve tragically hit at least 600,000 deaths due to the virus in this country, and the divide could not be sadder between the vaccinated and those who aren’t. Experts say those who continue to be seriously ill enough from the disease and to be hospitalized are unvaccinated. Deaths from Covid-19 are dipping by the day. But that is hard to explain to the heartbroken mourning the hundreds who still die daily from the infection.

By the way, don’t toss away those face coverings just yet. They may be a good thing to wear in closed, crowded, and poorly ventilated spots, especially as there’s no way to know for now who has gotten vaccinated and who has not. Masks may not be needed outdoors, and they’re less important for the vaccinated.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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