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Without federal mandate, most southwestern Pennsylvania hospitals back off COVID-19 vaccine requirement

Dr. Don Yealy, UPMC's chief medical officer.
Dr. Don Yealy, UPMC's chief medical officer.

A number of medical systems in southwestern Pennsylvania say they won’t require staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19 without a federal mandate, which is currently tied up in the court system.

When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced last month that all health care workers had to be vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022, the chief medical officers of southwestern Pennsylvania's 12 health systems released a joint statement saying that they would fully comply with the rule: “We know that widespread vaccination is one key step in controlling this pandemic.”

But after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on the mandate on Tuesday, just two of the signatories say they are going forward with this pledge. Allegheny Health Network’s chief medical officer Dr. Don Whiting said requiring the vaccine keeps patients and employees safe.

“As health care leaders, it shows the community that we believe in the science and we're willing to walk the walk,” said Whiting.

AHN faces no apparent legal risk as there is precedence that allows medical providers to make vaccination a condition of employment. Still, Whiting predicts the federal mandate will eventually be upheld, so arguably AHN is just getting out ahead of the inevitable.

Mary Crossley of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Health Law and Bioethics agrees the mandate will win on appeal. “I think that while it may take going to multiple courts or through multiple levels of the court system, I would predict that the Biden administration is likely to prevail.”

Even so, it appears a majority of southwest Pennsylvania’s dozen medical systems won’t require the vaccine without the mandate. These include Butler, Conemaugh, Excela, Penn Highlands and Washington health systems.

St. Clair Medical System said it encourages staff to get the vaccine but did not say that it was requiring employees to get it.

Like other medical facilities under the auspices of Veterans Affairs, the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System is in the process of complying with the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandate for federal employees — this is separate from the mandate that’s currently in limbo.

Heritage Valley Health System, Indiana Regional Medical Center and Armstrong County Memorial Hospital did not respond to requests for comment.

When asked about its plans at a Wednesday news conference, UPMC’s chief medical officer Dr. Don Yealy indicated it was also not going to require the vaccine without the federal mandate, saying, “We will comply with whatever mandate exists, and we will continue our activities that encourage and try to increase vaccination.”

This decision carries a significant impact as UPMC is Pennsylvania's largest hospital system.

Something hospital administrators must weigh in regards to employee vaccine policies is the ongoing nationwide shortage of health care workers. Those that require the vaccine hazard alienating in-demand workers who might seek employment elsewhere.

“There’s always a risk to being an outlier,” said Dr. David Rottinghaus, the chief medical officer of Butler Health, who thinks a better approach is having meaningful conversations with unvaccinated employees, “to help us get to a place of understanding.”

To make matters worse, patient levels are at critical heights. In addition to rising COVID-19 cases, people are seeking care that was postponed earlier in the pandemic. There’s also the specter of flu season which is predicted to be particularly severe this year.

Though he didn’t explicitly state that it was a part of its vaccine calculus, Yealy disclosed that staffing and hospital capacity were both major challenges for UPMC.

“We are aggressively changing how we recruit, retain and advance our employees,” said Yealy, who then urged the public to get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19.

Corrected: December 4, 2021 at 6:20 PM EST
This story has been corrected to reflect the correct date on which the federal mandate will take effect.
Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.