All Henry Ford Health workers must be vaccinated by Sept. 10

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Henry Ford will become the first Michigan health system to require that all of its employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — though other health systems wouldn't say Tuesday when or if they'll follow that benchmark. 

The mandate, which begins on Sept. 10, applies to students, volunteers and contractors in addition to workers at the five-hospital health system — about 33,000 team members in total. It would mean a little less than a third of the Detroit-based health systems would need to get shots since about 68% of its workforce is already vaccinated, health system officials said.  

"With hospitalizations in the single digits at each of our hospitals, and the positivity rate now hovering at about 1%, we're optimistic that the worst is behind us," Henry Ford Chief Operating Officer Robert G. Riney said Tuesday during a media briefing. "But we have lived this fight long enough to know that the new variants are real and worrisome. 

"(Variants) will continue to emerge, and surges can happen at any time, anywhere."

Since the data show the vaccines work and the Food and Drug Administration is expected soon to grant permanent approval of the COVID-19 vaccines, Henry Ford has decided to mandate COVID vaccination by Sept. 10, Riney added.

Sofia Rahaman,16, of St. Clair Shores, with her mother, Jennifer Rahaman watching, receives her vaccine shot from Henry Ford Health System nurse Maribel Hernandez at Lakeview High School.

Henry Ford is advising workers to get their first dose of vaccine no later than Aug. 10 to make sure they can get the second shot in time to make a firm Sept. 10 deadline. The Pfizer vaccine requires a 21-day wait between shots, and the Moderna vaccine requires a 28-day wait. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose. 

Other major Metro Detroit health systems are not immediately following the lead of Henry Ford Health.

Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan's health system, doesn't have a vaccine requirement for staffers, UM spokeswoman Mary Masson said.

Beaumont Health, a Southfield-based eight-hospital system that is negotiating a possible merger with west Michigan's Spectrum Health, also doesn't mandate vaccinations for workers.

“Beaumont believes the vaccine is an important tool to help end the pandemic. At this time, we are not mandating the vaccine for our employees,” Beaumont Health spokeswoman Maryanne MacLeod said Tuesday.

Some other institutions have required COVID vaccination. The University of Michigan is mandating vaccinations for students who want to live on the Ann Arbor campus for the fall term, while the private University of Detroit Mercy is requiring all students, staff and faculty to be fully vaccinated by Aug. 16 for the fall term. 

Delta Air Lines, which has a main hub at Detroit Metro Airport, is mandating that new employees but not existing staffers be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Unilateral policy opposed

The Michigan Nurses Association doesn't represent workers at Henry Ford Health but the group of unionized nurses argued that while it supports vaccination, it opposes having hospitals set unilateral policies.

"MNA nurses believe that these questions are best decided democratically by health care workers themselves and need to be subject to collective bargaining," according to a statement by the Michigan Nurses Association. The association's registered nurses "strongly encourage everyone to choose to get vaccinated to protect their families and themselves."

For Dr. Nigel Paneth, a professor with Michigan State University's Departments of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Pediatrics & Human Development, Henry Ford's policy couldn't start soon enough.

"I wonder why they're waiting until Sept. 15," Paneth said. "I know that people have bent over backwards to accommodate the people who don't wish to get vaccinated, but vaccination is not just about protecting yourself, it's a community responsibility.

"Unless we take on vaccinations as a community responsibility, especially in the health care system where we're more likely to see immunosuppressed people, we will not beat this thing." 

Total COVID-19 admissions across all Henry Ford’s hospitals are around 20, the lowest number since the early days of the pandemic, according to the health system.  Vaccinations are credited with the sharp decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases, as well as a vastly lower positivity rate.

More than 99% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan between Jan. 1 and June 15 involved people who were not fully vaccinated against the virus, according to data from a statewide hospital association and state government modeling.

Michigan added 173 cases and 32 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the state's totals to 894,433 cases and 19,744 deaths, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Last week, the state recorded two of the lowest daily case totals seen in more than a year. 

But emerging COVID variants like the Delta put unvaccinated individuals at extremely high risk for hospitalization and death, and leave hospitals vulnerable to potential future surges, Henry Ford officials noted. 

“The data and science continue to reinforce the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines,” Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer, said in a statement.

“...We believe this decision is in the best interest of our patients and members, our team members, and the communities we serve.”

Mandates prompt legal calls

Clinton Township-based employment attorney Heidi Sharp said she's been fielding calls about employers' vaccine mandates for about two months now, most involving workers in office settings.

Sharp hasn't filed any lawsuits yet, but she expects that litigation will increase as more employers require their workers to be vaccinated. Such mandates for health care employees have been tested in cases involving the flu vaccine, and the courts have sided with employers and upheld their mandates, she said. 

Just this month, Sharp noted, Houston Methodist Hospital prevailed in a case brought by 117 employees against the hospital's COVID-19 vaccination requirement. About 200 employees were fired for not getting vaccinated. 

The employees argued, in part, that they were being required to accept an experimental treatment, but U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled the arguments lacked merit. 

"Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus," Hughes wrote in her opinion. 

Henry Ford's policy is likely to persuade other health systems to follow suit, Sharp said.

"The Henry Ford decision is probably not going to stand alone — I suspect you're going to see a lot of other hospital systems and large employers make similar announcements," she said. 

The question of whether employers can require vaccinations was already tested in cases involving the flu vaccine, with courts generally finding in favor of employers, Sharp added.

Staffers at Henry Ford Health are already required to get a flu shot every year and stay current with other vaccinations such as measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough. But those with valid medical or religious reasons can be exempted from the requirement, according to the health system.

"You may see some legal challenges," Sharp said, "but they'll likely all fail, and these employers' decisions to require vaccinations will stand."

Twitter: @kbouffardDN