EDITORIAL: Protect patients by making sure health care workers are vaccinated

Jul. 28—The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

On Monday, the Veterans Administration became the first federal agency — and one of the few health care organizations — to require that many of its employees be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Health care workers at the VA, including nurses, doctors, dentists and optometrists, will have eight weeks to get vaccinated, or risk losing their jobs.

"It's the best way to keep veterans safe, especially as the delta variant spreads across the country," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. "Whenever a veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19.

We believe that any patient at any health care facility should have this same protection. Yet, few hospitals, nursing homes or other medical providers are requiring that their staff be vaccinated against COVID-19.

It also sends a confusing message when health care workers are not vaccinated, going against the advice of public health experts around the world and putting themselves at risk of catching the potentially deadly virus.

The VA announcement should be the beginning of a new trend of efforts to increase vaccinations of health care workers.

Also on Monday, California and New York City announced that all state employees must be vaccinated by mid-September or face weekly COVID tests. The California directive also includes public and private-sector health care employees. On Thursday, President Joe Biden is expected to announce a requirement that federal workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be subject to strict testing, according to multiple reports.

The VA announcement came on the day that a coalition of dozens of medical organizations pushed for vaccine requirements for health care workers.

"Due to the recent COVID-19 surge and the availability of safe and effective vaccines, our health care organizations and societies advocate that all health care and long-term care employers require their workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine," the groups, including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and American Pharmacists Association, said in their statement. "This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being."

An American Medical Association survey recently showed that 96 percent of doctors in the U.S. are vaccinated. However, in nursing homes only 60 percent of staffers are vaccinated, recent Medicare data show, according to the Associated Press.

The Maine Hospital Association has said it would like the state to mandate vaccinations for health care workers once the federal Food and Drug Administration has given full approval to the COVID inoculations. The vaccines are being used under emergency authorizations.

In the meantime, hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers can require vaccinations without government action.

"We are aware of the changes at other organizations across the nation, and we are consulting with clinical experts at the state on the best approach," Karen Cashman, a spokesperson for Northern Light Health said in an email. "As of right now, our focus remains on voluntary vaccination, education, and outreach."

Although Maine's vaccination rate is among the highest in the country, cases of COVID — and, more troubling, hospitalizations for COVID — are on the rise here. The delta variant, which is more transmissible and virulent, is of growing concern across the U.S.

As of Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now recommending that vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public places in parts of the country with higher COVID transmission. Maine's top health official, Dr. Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control, warned that vaccinated Mainers should be prepared to start wearing masks again indoors because of the delta variant. And on Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills' administration announced that the state will follow the U.S. CDC's updated mask guidance, stressing that the state changes are recommendations, not requirements.

It is an opportune time to encourage all eligible Americans to get vaccinated to slow the spread of the delta variant and to close off avenues for the growth of new variants. Health care providers can lead the way by requiring their staff to be vaccinated.