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Penn Health System’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate gets near total compliance

UPHS said no jab, no job. Now, practically all workers are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Staff entering Penn Medicine's Pennsylvania Hospital last December.
Staff entering Penn Medicine's Pennsylvania Hospital last December.Read morePenn Medicine

About 99% of the University of Pennsylvania Health System’s 38,000 employees have complied with its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, including about 760 who got exemptions or deferrals for medical or religious reasons.

Less than 1%, or about 380, were fired or quit rather than get the shots.

UPHS provided that update on Friday, 17 days after the deadline for compliance. Officials are still analyzing final data for another 6,000 workers who are in UPHS facilities and thus required to be vaccinated, but are not paid by the health system.

“As a large employer that is always at the ready to manage staffing changes, we continue smooth operations across the health system,” an emailed statement said. “We are proud to have come together as a group to protect one another and those we care for, and to have set an example for our friends, families, and neighbors that vaccination is a key path out of the pandemic.”

About half of the medical exemptions were for a limited time period because the employees had temporary conditions, notably pregnancy. Some pregnant people prefer to postpone vaccination until after delivery, even though public health officials and major obstetrical groups recommend the shots during pregnancy.

UPHS, the city’s biggest private employer and regional health-care giant, announced the mandate in May, when such requirements were unusual.

Now, many private and public employers, including the federal government, have adopted policies mandating COVID-19 shots or frequent testing. President Joe Biden this week directed the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a rule using emergency authority to require employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccination or weekly testing.

The shift reflects a number of factors. The Pfizer vaccine now has the FDA’s full regulatory approval, not just emergency authorization, and Moderna’s immunization has submitted data needed for full approval. A few court decisions have upheld mandates. And unvaccinated people sickened by the highly contagious delta variant are filling hospitals in states with low vaccination rates — a crushing new wave that was preventable.

To be sure, COVID-19 vaccine mandates are getting pushback from many quarters, including Republican lawmakers and governors. Debate and litigation over the ethics and legality of mandates are ongoing. But the U.S. has a long history of school vaccine mandates for infectious diseases such as polio, measles, and whooping cough, and flu vaccine mandates for health-care workers have become standard to prevent spreading the seasonal illness to vulnerable patients.

The only publicized pushback UPHS faced came from some of its Lancaster General Hospital employees. They held a protest rally, a petition drive, and consulted Eric Winter, a Reading-based lawyer. Winter did not return a call requesting comment on Friday.

“We are grateful,” the UPHS statement said, “for the incredible support from our workforce as we worked to implement this policy.”