- Some 30% of U.S. healthcare workers employed at hospitals remained unvaccinated as of Sept. 15, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data published Thursday by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.
- The findings include data from 3.3 million healthcare workers at more than 2,000 hospitals, collected between Jan. 20 and Sept. 15. Healthcare personnel working in children's hospitals had the highest vaccination rates, along with those working in metropolitan counties.
- Hospitals are facing potential staffing shortages and employee clashes as the Biden administration's COVID-19 vaccine mandate looms. Healthcare facilities must follow the CMS rule, which stipulates employees must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 or risk losing Medicare and Medicaid funding.
The vaccination rate for healthcare workers is roughly in line with that of the general population, though the risk of exposure and transmission can be higher in settings where infected COVID-19 patients are treated, Hannah Reses, CDC epidemiologist and lead author of the analysis, said.
When the shots were initially rolled out, vaccination rates climbed among healthcare workers, rising from 36% to 60% between January and April of 2021, the analysis found. But a major slowdown occurred shortly after.
From April to August, vaccination rates rose just 5%. They then rose 5% again in just one month — from August to September — likely due to the delta variant and more systems implementing their own mandates, the report said.
Researchers also found discrepancies in vaccination rates based on the type of hospitals and their geographic locations.
By September, workers at children's hospitals had the highest vaccination rates (77%), followed by those at short-term acute care hospitals (70%), long-term care facilities (68.8%), and critical access hospitals (64%).
Among healthcare workers at facilities in metropolitan areas, about 71% were vaccinated by September, compared to 65% of workers at rural facilities.
The findings come as health systems work to comply with new vaccination mandates from the Biden administration.
Unlike the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's rule that applies to businesses with 100 employees or more but excludes healthcare providers, the CMS rule does not allow for a testing exception.
Both agencies' rules were met with pushback. The attorneys general of 10 mostly rural states — Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Hampshire — filed a lawsuit on Oct. 10 against CMS for its rule and said the mandates would exacerbate existing staffing shortages.
"Requiring healthcare workers to get a vaccination or face termination is unconstitutional and unlawful, and could exacerbate healthcare staffing shortages to the point of collapse, especially in Missouri's rural areas," the state's attorney general, Eric Schmitt, said in a statement.
But some regional systems that implemented their own mandates have seen positive results.
After UNC Health and Novant Health in North Carolina required the shots, staff vaccination rates rose to 97% and 99%, respectively, according to a White House report.
Among Novant Health's 35,000 employees, about 375 were suspended for not complying, and about 200 of those suspended employees did end up getting vaccinated so they could return to work, according to the report.
And some major hospital chains across the country are joining suit with the looming deadline, including HCA with its 183 hospitals and more than 275,000 employees.
The chain is requiring employees be fully vaccinated by the CMS deadline on Jan. 4, a spokesperson said in an email statement.
At the same time, this year's flu season is difficult to predict, though, "the number of influenza virus detection reported by public health labs has increased in recent weeks," Reses said.
"The CDC is preparing for flu and COVID to circulate along with other respiratory viruses, and so flu vaccination therefore will be really important to reduce the risk of flu and potentially serious complications, particularly in combination with COVID-19 circulating," Reses said.