Vaccines required? Doctors debate if governments should force healthcare workers to get the COVID vaccine

LONDON — The COVID-19 vaccine is causing controversy not just in the United States, but in hospitals around the world. Along with debates over how to get the public to buy in to the vaccine rollout, many governments in Europe are now requiring their healthcare workers to get the shot regardless of any objections. In a new report, medical experts in the United Kingdom debate both the health and ethical implications of making hospital staff and home care workers get the vaccine or face reassignment.

For countries like Italy, France, and Greece, it is already mandatory for healthcare professionals to submit themselves for coronavirus vaccination. In the United Kingdom, home health aides must also get the vaccine before entering a patient’s residence. Such mandates are even popping up in the United States, with cities like New York ordering city employees to get the shot or face weekly testing until they do.

The question is: should governments and medical groups be able to force hesitant workers to take a vaccine or possibly face removal from their current position?

Some argue vaccine mandates protect patients from harm

In the new report, published in The BMJ, the University of Oxford’s Professor Michael Parker takes the side of those who think such requirements have to be in place to protect vulnerable patients. Parker argues that healthcare professionals have a responsibility to their patients and need to be willing to lower any and all risks to their lives.

“Healthcare workers whose unvaccinated status poses a risk to patients have an obligation to accept vaccination,” Parker emphasizes in a media release.

The professor of bioethics adds that those who choose to avoid vaccination, over fears of side-effects or other concerns, should be removed from frontline care duties immediately. It’s a strong stance, which some may argue is also an overreach by authorities. Critics also fear such a policy will lead many to quit their jobs, leading to a staffing shortage.

Parker, on the other hand, contends that job recruitment problems are “not a justification for doing nothing.”

Some argue vaccine mandates are ‘blunt instrument’ healthcare workers don’t need

Helen Bedford from the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health in London opposes vaccine requirements. The professor of children’s health calls mandatory COVID vaccines to “a blunt instrument to tackle a complex issue.”

“It is not necessary, acceptable, or the most effective way to achieve high uptake, and it raises serious ethical issues about freedom of choice,” Bedford and her team says.

The researchers argue that COVID vaccination rates among healthcare staff in the U.K. is already at 90 percent in hospitals and 87 percent among home care aides. The study authors do note that vaccine rates are lower among minorities, workers in the health and social care sectors, and workers in patient-facing roles.

“Mandatory vaccination can seem a straightforward solution, requiring less resource than other interventions, but it has downsides. Notably, it may risk increasing resistance to vaccination by damaging trust in the government and other organizations,” Bedford’s team warns.

What do patients think?

Michael Mittelman, a recipient of three kidney transplants due to a rare disease, is one of the many immunocompromised patients at the heart of the vaccination debate. For Mittelman, fear of catching COVID from anyone inside a hospital is leading him to side with Parker and advocates of a vaccine mandate.

“Not being able to trust the healthcare worker treating me, or the person bringing me a meal, breeds anxiety as covid variants spread,” Mittelman says in a commentary piece tied to the report.

Nadra Ahmed, chair of the U.K.’s National Care Association, sees things from the worker’s perspective. Ahmed notes that the home care workforce is already in a “fragile” state due to staffing shortages. Ahmed adds that the “most dangerous assumption is that staff who walk out will be easily replaced.”

Previous studies have discovered that medical professionals have been among the most stressed workers throughout the pandemic. This is leading many workers to report poor sleep habits, decreasing mental health, and burnout during the health crisis.

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