Why major hospital systems won't mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees

  • One of the largest health systems in the Midwest, including Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, expects to roll out vaccines as early as next week.

    One of the largest health systems in the Midwest, including Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, expects to roll out vaccines as early as next week. Courtesy of Advocate Aurora Health

 
 
Updated 12/11/2020 8:33 AM

Major hospital systems in Illinois won't require their employees to take the COVID-19 vaccine on the cusp of federal approval.

The first doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech could reach hospitals as early as next week, launching a mass immunization campaign that experts hope will mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

 

"This is an incredible landmark," said Dr. Robert Citronberg, executive medical director of infectious disease and prevention for Advocate Aurora Health. "The fact that this vaccine was able to be developed in such a short period of time is one of the great scientific achievements of our time."

Limited supplies of the vaccine mean hospitals will prioritize shots for health care workers who directly care for COVID-19 patients and face the highest risk of contracting the virus. But at this point, hospital leaders say they're strongly encouraging, not mandating, vaccinations for personnel.

"We don't feel like we have enough information to mandate it," Citronberg said. "We also don't think that's the right strategy right now. Encouragement, education are the ways to get people to take the vaccine. Now down the line, in subsequent months, that policy may change."

Edward-Elmhurst Health and Northwestern Medicine hospitals in the suburbs also won't force their employees to get the vaccine. Advocate Aurora Health is one of the largest systems in the Midwest, with 10 hospitals in Illinois and 16 in Wisconsin.

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While Citronberg cited a lack of data about any possible long-term effects, he also sought to address public skepticism over the vaccine during a briefing with reporters Thursday, hours before a key advisory panel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration endorsed its authorization for emergency use.

"The vaccine is incredibly effective, preventing COVID in about 95% of people who received the vaccine," Citronberg said. "It is not without side effects. Side effects are expected with vaccines, but there's no doubt that the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risk."

Reported effects from the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine include muscle aches, sore arms, transient fatigue and fever, signs that the immune system is responding to the inoculation, Citronberg said.

"Those are all good signs," he said. "There were no serious safety concerns that were reported within that trial, and on balance, this is a really, really favorable report on the efficacy and the safety."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The rollout

Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin and Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn will serve as regional distribution hubs along with eight other hospitals in the state's plan for allocating the first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Of the roughly 109,000 doses slated to come to Illinois, 23,000 are bound for Chicago and 86,000 to the rest of the state.

In DuPage County, public health authorities expect an allotment of about 13,000 doses. It could take several months to provide vaccines for the estimated 58,000 health care personnel and long-term care facility residents in the county -- groups that are first in line.

Hospitals have to identify which employees within COVID-19 units will get the vaccine first. The supply through this month likely won't be enough to immunize everyone, Citronberg said.

"We expect that hopefully in the next four or six weeks we should be able to immunize all of our patient-facing team members who want to get a vaccine," he said.

Hospital caseload

Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge was treating 111 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday. Advocate Sherman had 39. Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville and Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove logged 69 and 43, respectively.

Systemwide, officials reported a total of 960 COVID-19 patients, reflecting a slight downward trend in recent weeks, but they're bracing for another spike fueled by holiday gatherings.

"We are just absolutely imploring the public to not gather together and to celebrate virtually," said Dr. Gary Stuck, the system's chief medical officer.

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