Here’s why Utah hospitals aren’t making staff get vaccinated against COVID-19 — and when they might

Hospitals routinely require immunizations against measles, whooping cough and other communicable diseases.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Games and booths are set up creating a party atmosphere at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center for those getting the COVID-19 at a clinic at the University of Utah, Tuesday, June 29, 2021.

With COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations on the rise again in Utah, leaders of Utah’s major hospital systems joined Wednesday to urge Utahns to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

For now, though, none of the four companies — Intermountain Healthcare, HCA/MountainStar, Steward Health or University of Utah Health — are mandating that their employees get the vaccine, though they all require staff members to get vaccinated against measles and other communicable diseases.

The difference is that the three COVID-19 vaccines are being used “under emergency use authorization,” said Dr. Kencee Graves, associate chief medical officer for inpatient care at University of Utah Health.

The federal Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization, or EUA, to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 11, 2020. It gave the emergency go-ahead to the Moderna version of the vaccine a week later, and to the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Feb. 27, 2021.

The FDA has not given full approval to any of those vaccines. Pfizer applied for full authorization on May 7, and Moderna applied on June 1, according to the medical news website Healthline. Typically, the agency tries to make a decision on such submissions within six months.

“We closely watch for full approval, and will likely consider requiring it at that time,” Graves said.

Dr. Arlen Jarrett, chief medical officer for Steward Health’s five Utah hospitals, said Steward’s hospitals do not require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but “we strongly encourage it, and we are looking forward to the time when it actually gets official and full approval from the FDA.”

While Intermountain also doesn’t require COVID-19 vaccines for its employees, “we continually evaluate it,” said Dr. Mark Briesacher, the company’s chief physician executive.

Leaders for the four companies each confirmed they require employees to get vaccinated against such communicable diseases as measles, tetanus and whooping cough. Those vaccines have long been on the market, and all have full FDA authorization.

Jarrett said Steward Health also requires its workers to get flu shots.

Dr. Mike Baumann, HCA/MountainStar’s chief medical officer, said his company does not require its workers to get flu shots — but does require employees who don’t get the flu vaccine to wear masks when working.

Health care workers were the first to receive the vaccines when they were first available in December. Since then, Graves said, “we’ve seen millions of people be vaccinated over several months. The vaccines are very safe and very effective.”

With the recent spread of the Delta variant, which is more transmissible than previous forms of the virus, “it would appear that a choice to stay unvaccinated is very likely a choice to get COVID,” Jarrett added. “Not a matter of if, but when.”

Full FDA approval, according to some experts, could alleviate the worries of people who are hesitant about getting the vaccine. In an opinion essay in The New York Times last week, Eric J. Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, stressed the need for the FDA to act.

“Some people who understand that the ‘E’ in ‘EUA’ stands for ‘emergency’ are waiting for full FDA approval before they receive a shot,” Topol wrote in the essay, posted July 1. “Others may not get immunized unless their employers require it, and many organizations — including, reportedly, the military — are waiting for the vaccines to be fully approved before instituting such mandates.”