Pfizer vaccine LGH

Bobbi Jo Hurst, manager of employee health & safety at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, left, administers the first dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine in Lancaster County to Dr. Joe Kontra, chief of infectious diseases, at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health Suburban Pavilion Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

With more than 270 million COVID-19 vaccines administered in the United States alone, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health is joining a small but growing number of hospitals reversing course and now requiring employees roll up their sleeves.

LGH CEO John J. Herman announced the new requirement in a memo to staff on Wednesday.

The University of Pennsylvania health system — which, in addition to LGH, has five hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — appears to be the first in the state to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations.

Employees and clinical staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 1. And starting July 1, new hires will be required to provide verification of or complete vaccination two weeks prior to their start date.

Staff who are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons must apply for an exemption, similar to the health system’s flu vaccine policy.

It’s uncertain how frequently the hospital approves exceptions to its vaccine policy nor what happens to employees who are denied an exemption. Hospital officials did not immediately respond.

Unlike the flu vaccine, health systems have not required staff to be inoculated against COVID-19.

While all the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S. have undergone clinical trials, it was a truncated process sped up for emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

In explaining the decision, Herman said the health system didn’t immediately mandate vaccination to allow more information about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines to emerge.

With 37.5% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated and 39.6% in Pennsylvania, COVID-19 vaccines have had very few serious side effects.

“It is now clear that the responsible course of action is to require vaccination of all our employees and clinical staff for the protection of our patients and our workforce,” Herman wrote in his memo.

To date, roughly 66% of LGH’s more than 9,700 employees are fully vaccinated, according to numbers provided by a hospital spokesperson.

UPMC and WellSpan Health do not require staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 and neither health system has immediate plans to follow suit with a similar requirement, according to hospital spokespeople.

It’s unclear whether other Pennsylvania health systems will follow suit.

Hospitals are not required to report its vaccination plans to the department, Maggi Barton, a state health department spokeswoman, told LNP | LancasterOnline in an email, adding, “we encourage all Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated to add the best layer of protection against COVID-19.”

“Every hospital is unique and its requirements for immunizations including the COVID-19 vaccine will vary depending on a variety of factors,” Rachel Moore, a spokesperson for the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said in an email to LNP | LancasterOnline.

The association represents nearly 240 health care systems in Pennsylvania.

Moore added, “There may be other hospitals that have implemented or plan to implement a requirement, but we are not yet aware.”

U.S. hospitals and health systems are beginning to consider whether to require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees. Benefis Health System in Great Falls, Montana, and Houston Methodist are among those that have rolled out mandatory vaccination policies.

The reason for the new policies may be because sentiment among health care workers is changing.

A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 58% of health care workers support a mandate while 42% opposed a vaccine requirement.

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