Politics

It Sure Seems Like a Lot of People Are Choosing to Get Vaccinated Rather Than Lose Their Jobs

Small children in masks sit at desk as two women in masks instruct.
Co-teachers at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 Marisa Wiezel and Caitlin Kenny give a lesson to their masked students in their classroom on Monday in New York City, where school staff are being required to get vaccinated. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Novant Health, a large hospital system in North Carolina, announced on Monday that it had been forced to fire just 175 employees after they refused to go along with its new policy requiring staffers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. By any objective measure, this should have been an encouraging success story about an employer successfully nudging its workforce to make a responsible decision. Novant told the Washington Post that 99 percent of its 35,000-strong staff had been inoculated. The week before, it had suspended 375 holdouts, but most of them ultimately chose to get their shots and keep their jobs.

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And yet, this was the headline the Washington Post decided to slap on the piece: “N.C. Hospital System Fires About 175 Workers in One of the Largest-Ever Mass Terminations Due to a Vaccine Mandate.” The tone of doom and turmoil might easily have led a Twitter or Facebook user casually skimming the news to believe that some poor medical center had just been decimated by defections, when in fact the story was just the opposite.

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You can find similar coverage decisions by other outlets covering vaccine mandates. Apparently some editors have decided it’s just a fine idea to blast out the tidbit that Americans are quitting their jobs in protest of public health measures, then follow up with the essential context that, actually, the resistors are pretty much a blip. Here’s CNN reporting that 153 employees at Houston Methodist had resigned or were fired rather than accept a shot; only toward the bottom of the story do we learn that the hospital employs around 25,000 people. Another: “39 Quit Kansas Health System Over Vaccine Mandate: Report,” the Hill informs us in a bit of news aggregation. If you click through to the original Kansas City Star article, you’ll quickly find that amount is less than 1 percent of all staff. In every case, it only looks like an employment bloodbath borne of authoritarian overreach if you exclude the denominator.

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At the risk of jinxing things, it seems like the real story here is that health care workers nationwide are mostly just going along with their employers’ vaccine mandates. The industry news site Fierce Healthcare has been carefully documenting how these measures have played out at hospitals across the country; in most places, only a handful of employees decided to give up their jobs in order to take a stand against modern medicine. A South Carolina hospital had to fire just five of its 17,000 workers. A regional medical center in Kentucky lost fewer than 1 percent of its workforce; at UNC health, 900 of about 30,000 staff are unvaccinated, and only 70 have resigned. And so on.

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The more details you learn about these firings, the less worrisome they often appear. Delaware’s largest private employer, the hospital system ChristianaCare, chose to let go 150 of its 14,000 workers. But many were part-time employees, and “48 were jobs involving patient care and less than a dozen related to nursing,” according to the Delaware News Journal.

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There could be some self-selection going on—maybe hospitals are only choosing to impose vaccine mandates in cases where they’re confident their workers will generally cooperate. That’s why New York state, where all health care workers were required to get vaccinated or face termination as of Monday, is an especially important test case. (Five other states have similar deadlines coming up, according to the Washington Post.) So far, the results there seem encouraging, too. In the lead-up to this week, many hospitals worried about potential staff shortages, and Gov. Kathy Hochul called a formal health emergency that would allow National Guard troops to fill in where necessary. But the situation doesn’t seem to be that dire. As the New York Times reported, the looming mandate led to a surge of last-minute vaccinations, and by Monday, 92 percent of the state’s 650,000 hospital and nursing home employees had received at least one dose. That was up from 84 percent of workers at hospitals and 82 percent at nursing homes the week before.

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There have certainly been some challenges and hiccups in the state. About 5,000 employees, or about 12 percent of the workers, remained unvaccinated at New York City’s public hospital system as of Monday, and as a result were barred from work and docked pay. That’s a fairly large chunk of the workforce. But for now, Mayor Bill de Blasio says the issue isn’t expected to affect patient care, and city officials say they haven’t seen any evidence of major staff shortages yet (remember, these tallies don’t just include front-line health care workers like doctors and nurses, but all employees). Elsewhere in the state, at least a couple of hospitals have suspended elective surgeries while reviewing their workforce situations, but one of them managed to get its staff 100 percent vaccinated by the end of Monday. There just haven’t been any obvious catastrophes.

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What about workers outside of health care? Well, we can look at how the vaccine mandate for New York City’s public schools, which went into effect Monday at midnight after getting the go-ahead from a panel of judges, is playing out. Much like the mandate for hospitals, the new rules for educators seem to have led to a crush of last-minute vaccinations. New York City schools reported on Wednesday morning that 92 percent of teachers and 89 percent of all Department of Education staff were vaccinated. That’s up from 87 percent of teachers and 80 of DOE staff as of Sept. 22. Losing 8 percent of the city’s teaching staff would be a significant blow; to put it in a little perspective, the normal total turnover rate for a year is about 15 percent. But with thousands of staff getting vaccinated daily, the city seems to be on the path toward minimizing its losses. And most importantly, the vast majority of educators have gone along with the mandate.

And that’s really the point here. Public and private vaccine mandates seem to be a promising route to getting this pandemic under control, but many states and businesses are hesitant to implement them, not just for ideological reasons, but out of a practical fear of how it will affect the workforce. By focusing its coverage on “mass terminations” and quits, the media is only going to amp up those concerns, when in reality, the overwhelming majority of people are being sensible by choosing to get vaxxed if it means keeping their paychecks.

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