At times, vaccines can become a controversial topic. People often have strong opinions about where protecting society as a whole stops and an individual’s rights start. With COVID-19 in the news and the potential for a vaccine, the topic is not going away any time soon.
If you’re a healthcare worker, vaccine requirements are likely not new to you. But can employers mandate vaccines, and can you refuse? Keep reading to find out more.
Vaccine recommendations for healthcare workers
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend healthcare workers get the following vaccines:
- Hepatitis B
- MMR (Measles, mumps, and rubella)
- Tdap (Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis)
The flu vaccine, which is offered yearly, has come into debate as more healthcare facilities across the country enact policies for mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers.
One of the arguments for mandatory vaccines is that it is the responsibility of healthcare providers to vaccinate and protect patients from getting the disease. By refusing vaccination, it may cause harm and violate their duty as a healthcare worker to do no harm.
On the flip side of the debate is by mandating a vaccine, it strips workers of their rights to make their own health care decisions. Additionally, if an individual opposes a vaccine due to medical concerns or religious reasons, and he would lose his job, the mandate is discriminatory. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, there appear to be legitimate arguments for both sides.
Are any vaccines mandatory?
The answer to whether vaccines are mandatory for healthcare workers is yes and no, which may sound confusing. That is because laws vary by state. Further variations exist on which vaccines are required and allowable exemptions.
Many healthcare facilities, including acute care hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, have implemented vaccine requirements due to mandates enacted by state regulations. The mandates may include assessing employees’ immunizations records, offering vaccines, and in some cases, ensuring vaccinations.
But vaccine mandates are not entirely uniform across the country. State laws vary for mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers. Plus, within a state, individual employers also set policies that may involve mandatory vaccines.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), currently 15 states have laws that require healthcare workers to have certain immunizations for employment.
But within each state, the law usually includes some type of exemption. The allowed exemptions may also vary. Some states are stricter than others on allowable exemptions. To further complicate things, if a state is under a “state of emergency,” such as with COVID-19, other mandates may be enacted to protect public health, which may impact enforcing vaccines.
To determine the rules in your state, you can check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC lists individual states and mandates for vaccines, including the flu. You can also check with the department of public health within your state.
Do you have the right to refuse?
If you live in a state that requires mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers, can you refuse? You may be able to decline based on allowable exemptions. Again, state laws vary on exemptions.
Exemptions may include the following:
Medical exemptions: All states that have a mandatory vaccine requirement allow a medical exemption. A medical exemption indicates that the vaccine is medically contraindicated. You will have to have a healthcare provider sign a form that states the vaccine is contraindicated for you.
Religious exemption: Most states also have a religious exemption. You may have to bring in a letter from your religious leader. The rules for how to get an exemption based on religious beliefs vary, so check with your state.
Philosophical exemption: Some states also allow for a philosophical exemption. This is an exemption based on a person’s personal belief that he/she is opposed to immunizations. Not all states allow a philosophical exemption.
Healthcare facility policies differ in handling employees that require an exemption. Usually, you need to declare in writing that you decline the vaccine. You may have to state what you are basing the exemption on (religious, medical, or philosophical). You also may be required to provide proof for a medical exemption.
In some cases, your facility may have specific policies in place for people that do not get a vaccine due to an exemption. For example, many hospitals make staff wear a surgical mask at work for the entire flu season if they refuse a flu vaccine.
Can your facility fire you?
Healthcare facilities have fired employees that refused to comply with mandatory vaccine requirements. Individual cases vary, but some involved employees did not get an exemption and did not get the vaccine. Lawsuits often ensued to varying degrees of success.
The bottom line is, it’s possible to be fired if you do not comply and do not get an exemption for mandatory vaccines in certain states. It’s best to check with your human resource department and get their policy in writing before fighting any vaccine mandates. Also, check your bargaining agreement if you are represented by a union.
It is hard to say what the future holds when it comes to mandatory vaccines for healthcare workers. If a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, healthcare workers are likely to be one of the first populations vaccinated. Whether that vaccination will be mandatory is not clear.
Only time will tell the direction that mandatory vaccines will take. One thing we do know is that learning as much as possible about a particular vaccine, including the risks and benefits, helps you make an informed decision.