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Henry Ford Health System will require workers to get COVID-19 vaccine

Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit
Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio

Updated at 3:01 p.m.

By September 10, all 30,000-plus Henry Ford Health System employees must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, or risk losing their jobs.

The announcement on Tuesday makes HFHS the first health system in the state to require the vaccine, and comes just weeks after a federal judge in Texas threw out a lawsuit from Houston Methodist employees over a similar mandate. But Bob Riney, Henry Ford’s COO, hopes it won’t come to that.

“At the end of the day, there may be some individuals that will choose not to be vaccinated, and choose to leave employment at Henry Ford Health System,” Riney said at a press conference. “But we don't anticipate that number will be very large. And we certainly are going to do everything we can to mitigate it.”

While exemptions will be made for those with “valid medical or religious reasons,” the policy will apply to students, volunteers, and any contractors who work with the health system.

“There's no question that this will evoke various reactions from people,” Riney said. “But, you know, at the end of the day, as a leading health system that's helped navigate this community through three major surges and just dealt with so much heartbreak and loss, we want to do everything we can to role model [and] lead the way...because we don't want to be back here in the fall with an emerging Delta variant [surge] or another variant.”

Already, about 68% of Henry Ford’s workforce is vaccinated, said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, the Director of Infection Control and Prevention at HFHS.

“Like other health care systems, we're seeing lower numbers among non-clinical, administrative teams,” he said. “We suspect that part of the reason for this might be that so many of our non-clinical teams are still working remotely, and are choosing to wait to get their vaccines.”

Only about 1% of employees get medical or religious exemptions for the annual flu vaccine, which Henry Ford already requires, Cunningham said. And he expects exemption rates will be similar for the COVID shots.

“There's very few reasons to not get the vaccine. It's really if you've had an allergic reaction to the first COVID vaccine, or we know that you have a serious allergy to one of the ingredients in the vaccines. The religious exemptions, it has to be something that you demonstrated, that if you've had other types of vaccines before, you can't say that ‘I have a religious objection to the vaccine.’”

Pregnant employees, however, will be allowed to wait until after they’ve delivered their baby.

“We know from studies that the vaccine is safe [during pregnancy] and may offer some protection for their babies,” Cunningham said. “But if the pregnant woman chooses to wait, she can receive the vaccine after delivery by submitting a request for medical exemptions.”

Even if employees do protest the policy, they don’t have much legal ground to stand on, says John Philo, the executive and legal director of the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice.

“The federal EEOC [Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission]and other federal agencies have issued guidance on this,” he said. “But even in the absence of their guidance, it's hard to see where there's a real right that's being violated, if the policy is tailored with exceptions for legitimate religious [and medical] reasons.”

And Philo believes more health systems will soon follow Henry Ford’s example.

“I think most employers are holding out hoping that people will get vaccinated voluntarily, and they won't have to set broad mandates. But I do think we will see more of this as the months progress.”

Original Associated Press Post: 11:09 a.m.

COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory for employees at one of Michigan's largest health care providers. Henry Ford Health System in southeastern Michigan says the policy starts Sept. 10 and covers employees, medical students and contractors.

Nearly 70% of 33,000 staff members have been fully vaccinated. President Wright Lassiter III says "safety and infection prevention are everyone's responsibility." There will be exemptions for people with medical or religious reasons.

Henry Ford Health says employees already are required to get a flu shot every year and stay current with vaccinations for other diseases.

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