Lakeland Regional Health is waiting for federal guidelines before figuring out how to ensure hospital employees and associates are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, as required by an executive order from President Joe Biden.
Biden’s order requires hospitals and other health facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid funds ensure their employees and associates are vaccinated. The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid is expected to issue guidelines in October.
“If you’re seeking care at a health facility, you should be able to know that the people treating you are vaccinated,” Biden said during his national address Sept. 9.
It is unclear what percentage of Lakeland Regional Health’s workforce is currently vaccinated, according to Dr. Daniel Haight, vice president of community health and medical director of infection prevention.
Starting in December, when vaccines were first rolled out, the hospital began providing free shots to its workers. But as the vaccine became more widely available, hospital workers also could get their free shots at local pharmacies along with everyone else, he explained.
A spokesperson at Tampa General Hospital, which like Lakeland Regional has been encouraging vaccination among its workforce since the vaccine rollout, said that 72% of its workforce is fully vaccinated and 74% has received at least one dose.
If Lakeland Regional’s vaccination rate is similar to Tampa General’s, it already is considerably higher than that of the general population. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nationwide 64.1% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. For Polk County, 54% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.
Polk County, like the rest of the state and the country, has been seeing a trend of more vaccinations during this latest wave of infections, spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, Haight said.
Biden’s executive order was intended to boost vaccination rates not only in the health industry, affecting some 17 million workers nationwide, but also across the board by mandating all companies with more than 100 employees require vaccinations, affecting more than 80 million workers.
The health facilities order covers doctors, nurses and assistants, therapists, food workers, cleaning crews, technology and office workers, contracted workers and more at hospitals, surgery and dialysis centers and home health agencies. Earlier last month, a national executive order was issued requiring nursing home workers be vaccinated.
Lakeland Regional Health, which accepts both Medicare and Medicaid payments, employs more than 5,400 full-time and part-time team members, according to its website.
For now, Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center and its affiliated facilities will continue with hygiene protocols, requiring masks and social distancing while encouraging vaccinations and answering questions to address COVID concerns, Haight said.
If the federal guidelines for COVID-19 vaccinations are similar to other vaccine requirements, Haight expects that Lakeland Regional team members will be required to show proof of vaccination by presenting their cards. People who who have misplaced their cards may return to the site where they received their shot and request a copy, he said. Almost all facilities that give the shots have been entering the information in the Florida Shots database so the information can be retrieved, he explained.
As far as those who have not yet been vaccinated, “We understand these are unusual times,” Haight said. There has been a lot of confusion with information and misinformation and “we want to help them take a deeper look and help them understand the truth.”
Haight expressed confidence that team members who are not currently vaccinated against COVID will take the shot when required, citing the success of annual flu shots. Approximately 98 percent of Lakeland Regional’s team members across all areas get their required flu shots, with exceptions made for certain medical issues and religious objections, he said.
The American Hospital Association is not as optimistic as Haight that vaccine-reluctant hospital workers will comply. The association’s president and CEO Ron Pollock issued a statement saying, “This policy may result in exacerbating the severe workforce problem,” indicating some may quit their jobs rather than comply.
Haight said he and others at Lakeland Regional have been available to address concerns about COVID and vaccinations since the pandemic began.
“There are a lot of good questions,” Haight said. “We respect people’s concerns about vaccinations, medications and the disease itself.
“Almost every day a I get a few questions about the vaccine,” Haight said. “Usually it is a personal question; they want information from different sources.”
His advice: “Ask questions and make sure you feel you comfortable in what you can and cannot do. There can be side effects — rare side effects and certainly not as serious as the effects of the COVID” virus.
Since the pandemic began, 51,889 Floridians have died of COVID-19. The state Department of Health has not been releasing county-by-county death figures since June, but a database maintained by University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi shows Polk had experienced 2,085 deaths as of last Thursday, based on CDC data.
In the latest wave almost all people who were hospitalized were unvaccinated, Haight said. The very few who were hospitalized although they were vaccinated had serious pre-existing conditions or suppressed immune systems, he said.
Lakeland Regional’s most recent public release of COVID data shows that on Sept. 15, 87.8% of its COVID patients were unvaccinated, including 95% of COVID patients in ICU and 96.3 percent of COVID patients on ventilators.
Although more than 175 million Americans have been vaccinated, Biden said in his address, “The unvaccinated overcrowd our hospitals, are overrunning the emergency rooms and intensive care units, leaving no room for someone with a heart attack or pancreatitis, or cancer.”
As of last Wednesday, Lakeland Regional, which is licensed for 864 bed, had 294 patients that were positive for COVID, including 61 who were in ICU and 54 on ventilators.
Haight cautioned that even though the current wave of infections is beginning to subside, people must be aware that “as with any wave, we have two halves. We just got past the peak. The next 100 people to get infected will be just as serious as the 100 at the top of the wave.”
Haight also spoke about COVID patients going home with long-term effects. “Complications from difficulty breathing and getting oxygen can leave damage to the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain. It makes a person more vulnerable to other types of illnesses. We are seeing people in recovery having heart attacks, strokes, blood clots to arms and legs and other health concerns that further slow recovery.”
In assessing how Lakeland Regional will respond to the presidential mandate, Haight said, “We are focused on how do we protect our patients, not only from COVID-19 but in other situations. We need a healthy team taking care of patients, including behind the scenes, making and delivering food, cleaning rooms, running computers, working in offices. These are all critical concerns.”