It was never a question of “if” for Marc Boom, MD, CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, it was a question of “when.” As it turned out, the “when” was unprecedented. Boom mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for all Houston Methodist employees and was the first hospital to do so in the U.S.
“We see it as consistent with our culture and our responsibility to keep patients safe. People who work in health care have a sacred obligation to care for patients and keep them safe. Much like with the flu shot mandate, which we’ve done for a dozen years, mandating the COVID pandemic when we know the vaccine is safe and effective, it fulfills that sacred obligation,” Boom says in an exclusive interview with Health Evolution.
The vaccine mandate was announced on March 31st and went into effect on June 7th. A group of 117 employees sued the hospital arguing that it was coercion to make them take an “unproven vaccine.” A federal judge did not agree and ruled in favor of Houston Methodist. He described the comparison by the employees of the vaccine mandate to medical experimentation in Nazi concentration camps as reprehensible.
The ruling gave many other hospitals and health systems the validation they needed to go ahead with their own vaccine mandates. While some health care leaders have hesitated to put in a vaccine mandate due to labor shortage concerns, Boom says more than 2,600 hospitals and health systems mandated the vaccine before President Biden’s federal requirement will make it necessary for all organizations to comply.
Health Evolution spoke with Boom about the backlash from employees when Houston Methodist announced the mandate, why he thinks vaccine mandates actually improve the labor shortage problem rather than exacerbate it, and advice he has for CEOs who are wrestling with this problem.
What kind of backlash did you face when you announced this mandate in March?
It was very vocal, and it came from a small minority. The vast majority of my employees were saying to me, “This is great. I am glad we’re leading this. Thank you for keeping us safe. Thank you for keeping our patients safe.” And then a very vocal, small minority—in fact, the really vocal were only a couple of people—decided to be very vocal. We managed through that. At the end of the day, we managed to keep 99.4 percent of our employees. We only had 0.6 percent of employees who left as a result of the mandate. That’s a very small percentage and was manageable. We were able to quickly refill those positions. We are sorry to have lost those people, but they made their choice. But 99.4 percent of our employees complied with the policy. As a result, we have an incredibly safe workforce and hospital.
We’re on the back end of a very difficult surge from this Summer and this mandate really functioned quite well in all ways we would have wanted. We want to keep our patients safe. We want to keep our employees safe. What we saw was we had markedly decreased absenteeism compared to other COVID surges and a markedly decreased number of employees getting sick.
In the summer of 2020, at peak, we had about 250-300 excess short-term disability filings. These were employees going out in the community and getting COVID. We typically had a lower rate than the community, but it still mirrored the community. That was 250-300 per week. You are out for two weeks if you have COVID. This summer our peak was around 100 excess filings. That means we were preserving 150 per week. With a two-week absence, we were preserving 300-400 employees in the workforce at any given time. In 2020, at the height of that surge, we had 12 employees in intensive care, two of whom passed away. This summer, we had zero employees who needed ICU care. When we looked at it, in the vaccinated 26,000-plus employees, only 0.03 percent required hospitalization. A vanishingly small number. Of the 450 unvaccinated people, the people who got exemptions, we had 1.32 percent needing admissions. There was 44 times the likelihood of getting admitted if you were unvaccinated than if you were vaccinated. We fulfilled our sacred obligation to keep patients safe and our ethical obligation to keep employees safe. We retained capacity to care for the community during a pandemic. I see this mandate, with the benefit of hindsight, as a resounding success.