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Massachusetts must order all health care personnel to get the vaccine

As the Delta variant surges, unvaccinated employees in the health care industry are putting patients at risk by unnecessarily exposing them to COVID-19.

By The Editorial Board

Updated August 20, 2021, 4:00 a.m.

Maryland became the latest state Wednesday to require health care workers statewide — all personnel at nursing homes, hospitals, and other health care congregate facilities — to get the coronavirus vaccine. It joins California, Maine, Rhode Island, New York, and others in a growing list of states that are recognizing that workers who interact with vulnerable patients must be subject to a vaccine mandate.

Massachusetts should be next. Governor Charlie Baker seems to be heading in that direction, and just announced a requirement for all workers in the state’s executive office to be vaccinated or risk being fired. Earlier this month he ordered all staff at long-term care facilities to get the vaccine as infections started rising in congregate settings.

But those policies don’t go quite far enough. It’s only sensible for Baker to go a step further and extend the same policy for all health care workers in the state — something a spokesman for the governor says has not been ruled out.

As the Delta variant surges, those employees in the health care industry — a workforce estimated to be among the largest in the Commonwealth at more than half a million — who choose to remain unvaccinated are putting patients at risk by unnecessarily exposing them to COVID-19. To require those workers to get the vaccine is a critical preventative measure.

It would also help prevent one of the possible side effects of the nursing home regulation (which is now federal, after the Biden administration on Thursday required nursing home staff vaccinations as a condition for federal funds). That rule, while undoubtedly necessary to protect nursing home residents, may have made it harder for nursing homes to retain staff when similar employers are not subject to the same requirement.

“We are estimating that 5 to 10 percent of staff may choose to leave as a result of the nursing home mandate,” said Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association. Right now employees may choose to leave and go work for another employer that is not subject to the nursing home mandate, such as a home health care provider.

“But if we have a health care industry-wide mandate, not only is it safe for consumers and for patient care but it begins to insulate employers’ risk of losing employees to other sectors of the health care industry,” said Gregorio.

According to Gregorio, about 77 percent of staff at nursing homes in the states have received at least one shot. Most Massachusetts hospitals are requiring the shot for their workers, but it’s unclear how many remain unvaccinated. “We don’t have that data to even know what the vaccination rates are among home health care aides, physician practices, or EMTs,” she said.

The state should do all it can to stop the spread of Delta, and that includes industry-specific vaccine mandates. Hesitant health care workers may be persuaded to get the vaccine if they know that every one of their prospective employers is requiring the shot. Most importantly, it will add another layer of safety in keeping patients and the wider public safe from the virus.