This story has been updated.
For months, the University of Alabama at Birmingham has been spreading the word and helping Alabama residents get COVID-19 vaccinations; now, it will require Health System employees at its hospital and clinics to get shots.
“Patients in our hospital and clinical settings are vulnerable, very sick and at higher risk for complications,” said vice president of clinical support services Dr. Sarah Nafziger, in a news release. “Unvaccinated health care workers put these patients at greater risk, given that their jobs require close interaction with them and others who are immunocompromised.”
Just under 36% of Alabama’s population is fully vaccinated. According to the university, 72% of faculty and staff currently are vaccinated. Health system clinical employees, which number some 16,000, must receive all of their shots by Nov. 12, according to officials.
It is not clear how the system plans to verify vaccination status. It is also not clear how officials plan to avoid Alabama’s new COVID-19 “vaccine passport law,” passed in May, which allows general employee vaccination requirements, but bars state and local agencies from requiring immunization in order to enter a government building.
Spokesman Bob Shepard said employees unvaccinated by the deadline might be disciplined and could face termination, suspension of clinical privileges or other action.
Shepard also said that the health system, “an Alabama non-profit corporation, is not requiring vaccinations or proof of such to enter our facilities. This plan – carefully developed to comply with legal requirements – requires Health System workers to be vaccinated to meet our stated goals and purpose including keeping our patients and employees safe and maintaining our ability to provide critical services to citizens across Alabama.”
UAB’s academic side also plans to offer $400 incentives to employees who are fully vaccinated or have received one shot by Sept. 30.
Nafziger said the virus has threatened the hospital and health care workers’ ability to provide safe and effective care.
“Extensive data show vaccines are safe and effective, and we have a responsibility as a healthcare entity to provide a safe environment to protect our patients, employees and community and serve as a leader in the fight against COVID-19,” she said. “If more people don’t get vaccinated, and hospitalizations continue to increase, we will not be able to care for patients who need us; we’ve already decreased important services.”
Hospitals around the state are strained. Earlier on Tuesday, Michael Sloane, UAB’s Faculty Senate Chair and a member of its COVID-19 task force, said that “there are cancer patients forced to wait to get brain tumors removed because the hospital is full of unvaccinated people.”
Earlier this month, Ascension, the company that operates St. Vincent’s hospitals in Birmingham and Mobile, said it would require staff to get vaccinated by Nov. 12.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the state has had 641,386 cases of COVID since March 2020, adding 4,023 in the last day.
The system already requires flu shots and other vaccines. Officials said exemptions may be available to people with disabilities, medical conditions or religious beliefs.
The decision to require the COVID-19 vaccine as the appropriate standard of care – as many other medical providers across the country are doing – was made in part because of the high transmissibility of the Delta variant and the resulting surge in unvaccinated inpatient cases.
“Around 90 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and we are seeing more and more unvaccinated people having severe illness and dying from this Delta variant – even younger people without pre-existing conditions,” Nafziger said. “The Delta variant is serious, and aggressive measures like vaccine requirements are absolutely critical in stopping further spread. We know the risks of getting COVID far outweigh the minor, short-term risks of getting a vaccine, and the Delta variant is making this call to action more imperative than ever before.”