July 14, 2021 -- A group of six medical organizations has put out a statement urging hospitals and other health care facilities to require all workers to be vaccine against COVID-19.

"The COVID-19 vaccines in use in the United States have been shown to be safe and effective," said the statement's lead author, David Weber, MD, MPH, an infection prevention specialist at the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, and a board member of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America."We believe that the benefits of the vaccine for our health care providers far outweigh any possible harms and we strongly endorse this statement," Weber said in a news briefing Tuesday. Joining in the recommendation were the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the HIV Medicine Association, the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, and the Society of Infectious Diseases Pharmacists.

A panel of experts conducted a 2-month review of evidence on the three authorized vaccines, vaccination rates, and employment law to develop the guideline.

The statement comes as the encroaching Delta variant has caused the number of COVID-19 infections to rise in some parts of the United States and around the world. Several countries, including France, Greece, and Italy, have recently mandated COVID vaccines for health care workers.

"This is definitely a critical time," said Hilary M. Babcock, MD, medical director of infection prevention and occupational infection prevention at BJC Healthcare in St. Louis. Missouri is currently seeing a surge of cases tied to the Delta variant.

"The health care systems are once again filling up. We've tripled the number of COVID patients in our hospital over the last couple of weeks. Half of those patients are in our ICU," Babcock said. "That increased risk in the community also affects our health care workers."

A ‘Condition of Employment’

Federal data show that 1 in 4 hospital workers across the United States are still unvaccinated. The number is 1 in 3 in the nation's 50 largest health systems.

In the briefing on the new statement, experts explained that vaccine mandates were the only way to get to high levels of vaccination coverage in health care settings.

Erica Shenoy, MD, associate chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said data from flu vaccination campaigns showed that coverage was around 94% at hospitals where the flu vaccine is required for workers, but 69% at facilities that don't mandate the shots.

"If you really want those high numbers, the condition of employment is where you want to get to," Shenoy said.

Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, the first in the nation to require the COVID-19 shots for its employees, has reached nearly 100% coverage.

Many hospitals and health systems have shied away from mandating COVID-19 vaccination for their health care workers, worried about the legal repercussions of requiring vaccines authorized for use on an emergency basis.

The expert panel that developed the statement said that, based on their legal review, hospitals were within their rights to require the COVID-19 vaccines as long as employers allowed exemptions for defined medical conditions and certain religious practices.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also concluded in May that employers were on firm legal footing to mandate vaccines.

A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit brought against Houston Methodist for its vaccination mandate.