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Henry Ford Health System Will Require Workers To Get COVID-19 Vaccine

front of Henry Ford Health System's hospital
Paulette Parker/ Michigan Radio
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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.";s:

By September 10, the more than 30,000 employees working at the Henry Ford Health System must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs.

The announcement Tuesday makes HFHS the first health system in the state to require the vaccine.

It also comes just weeks after a federal judge in Texas threw out a lawsuit from Houston Methodist employees over a similar mandate.

But Henry Ford’s COO, Bob Riney 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,” he said. “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."

Dr. Dennis Cunnigham is the system's Director of Infection Control. He says about 68% of Henry Ford’s workforce is already vaccinated.

“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 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," he said.

"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.”

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

“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.”

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.”

Kate Wells is an award-winning reporter who covers politics, education, public policy and just about everything in between for Iowa Public Radio, and is based in Cedar Rapids. Her work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She's also contributed coverage to WNYC in New York, Harvest Public Media, Austin Public Radio (KUT) and the Texas Tribune. Winner of the 2012 regional RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Award and NBNA Eric Sevareid Award for investigative reporting, Kate came to Iowa Public Radio in 2010 from New England. Previously, she was a news intern for New Hampshire Public Radio.
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