A letter to the community on COVID-19 vaccinations from Tommy Inzina, CEO of BayCare
BayCare, along with every other health care provider in the country, learned today (Sept. 9) that President Biden has instructed the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to take steps to mandate COVID-19 vaccines in most health care settings.
We respect the decision made by our elected official and BayCare will take the necessary action to comply. This government announcement comes as questions have grown in our community about why local hospitals and other employers have not mandated the vaccine earlier. I would like to address that.
I am CEO of BayCare, West Central Florida’s largest health care system. Like every major health care system in the country, we are on record encouraging everyone who is eligible to obtain the vaccine. It is safe and effective and it is saving lives. That’s why I want every one of BayCare’s 28,029 team members to get vaccinated: To ensure they don’t suffer severe complications or even death from COVID, or spread it to their families and friends. It will also ensure a healthy workforce available for the community’s health care needs.
For months now, BayCare has had to balance the community’s broader health care needs – from delivering babies to providing emergency room services – against the possible impact on staffing of a mandatory vaccine requirement. Our primary responsibility as the region’s homegrown, non-profit health care system is for our facilities to be open and safely operating to serve the community. That includes 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week coverage at our 14 acute care hospitals in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk and Pasco counties.
In recent weeks, those hospitals have seen record numbers of inpatients due to COVID but also other health care needs. Since early August until just a few days ago, our number of COVID patients systemwide hovered above 1,100 – nearly 40 percent more than the last peak in the summer of 2020, before COVID vaccines were available. The burden on our team is tremendous, as detailed last week by the Tampa Bay Times' team that spent a shift at our Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater.
This onslaught of patients comes as our industry’s workforce is already stretched from the crisis. Every local hospital leader would tell you the same thing: It is the most severe staffing challenges we have seen in our lifetimes and relief is not yet in sight. Many of our team members train for years for their roles and expanding that pipeline can’t happen overnight.
So as the region’s largest provider of health care, BayCare has faced a conundrum. As much as we would like to mandate the vaccine for our team members, in this moment with the strain on our team, we believed a mandate could have a negative impact on health care access for our community.
BayCare is one of the region’s largest private employers and as such, our team members reflect the diversity of the region’s population. So it’s not surprising that some of our team members, 44 percent, are opting out of vaccination at a rate similar to working-age adults in the region.
Mandating the vaccine will lead to a higher staff vaccination rate, but it remains unknown how many health care workers it will prompt to leave the industry. In recent months, as our hospitals filled with record numbers of sick patients, we knew we risked alienating a not-insignificant number of our team members. If even a small fraction of our non-vaccinated team members choose to exit the workforce rather than get vaccinated, we’d have even fewer team members to take care of patients, COVID or otherwise.
Health care is a labor-intensive service. Fewer nurses will mean each nurse will have more patients to care for; fewer laboratory technicians will slow test results; fewer environmental services technicians will mean fewer people to clean rooms, extending wait times from the emergency room to the operating theater; fewer administrative team members will slow admitting and discharge processes, to just name a few examples. Fewer people on the job also mean that those team members who remain suffer, too.
Today, however, with the President signaling a federal mandate, circumstances have changed. As we have learned repeatedly during this pandemic, we must be flexible and adapt as circumstances require. We will work to implement this mandate on the timeline the government prescribes and simultaneously ensure quality health care for our community.
Until that moment where all hospital team members are vaccinated, rest assured BayCare will continue to provide quality, safe care at our hospitals. Vaccines aren’t the only way to prohibit COVID transmissions. Every team member serving patients is supplied with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect the patient and the team member from COVID-19 transmission. In our facilities, we require everyone to wear masks and have implemented social distancing wherever possible. We continue enhanced cleaning protocols. As an industry, we are practiced in infection control and we remain diligent.
There is also no need for anyone eligible for the vaccines to wait for a mandate. BayCare continues to encourage their team members and everyone else who is eligible to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible to protect themselves, their families and the broader community.