The University of Texas Medical Branch is requiring its nearly 18,000 employees, students and contract workers to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6 or go on leave, officials announced Friday.
The rule applies to anyone who works for or with the medical branch and is meant to comply with federal guidelines requiring vaccination of all employees of organizations that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments.
The move came despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order in August forbidding government agencies in Texas from requiring their employees be inoculated against COVID.
Medical Branch officials created the Dec. 6 deadline to ensure all 13,800 personnel and 3,500 students receive their second dose by a Jan. 4 federal deadline, spokesman Christopher Smith Gonzalez said.
Medicare and Medicaid payments make up about a third of the medical branch’s revenues, roughly $685 million a year, said Dr. Timothy Harlin, executive vice president and CEO of the medical branch health system.
Losing that money would be devastating, he said.
“Medicare and Medicaid are so interwoven with most large health systems and rural hospitals it would be very difficult for any hospital, I would imagine, to survive without it,” Harlin said.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued the final rule Nov. 4, noting the policy would apply to 17 million health-care workers.
President Joe Biden announced in September he had requested various federal agencies to develop vaccine requirements for companies with 100 or more employees, for companies that do business with the federal government and for millions of health care workers.
“Our workforce, student body and volunteers are essential to our mission,” medical branch President Dr. Ben Raimer said in a Thursday letter to employees.
“Compliance with these vaccine mandates is equally essential. Non-compliance would jeopardize significant federal funding that is critical to our training programs, research priorities and health care services.”
The requirement applies to employees, faculty, licensed practitioners, students, volunteers, trainees and contracted staff, according to the medical branch.
Employees and students who aren’t in clinical settings and employees who work from home also fall under the requirement, he said.
As of Thursday, the medical branch estimated about 69 percent of its 13,800 employees were vaccinated, Harlin said. Since the medical branch told employees they needed to prove their vaccination status, staff and faculty who were vaccinated at facilities outside the medical branch have submitted vaccine cards, Harlin said.
The medical branch still is updating those numbers as more employees prove their vaccine status, he said.
More than 90 percent of the 3,500 students already are vaccinated, Harlin said.
“The students did a really good job getting vaccinated,” Harlin said.
The rule doesn’t allow employees and others to opt for regular testing, but it provides exceptions for some recognized medical conditions and religious beliefs, according to the medical branch.
The medical branch plans to set up two committees — one for religious exceptions and one for medical exceptions — to review requests for exemptions to the mandate on a case-by-case basis, Harlin said.
Employees without those exceptions who aren’t vaccinated by Dec. 6 won’t immediately be terminated, but they won’t be allowed to work, he said.
“It’s our hope that everybody gets the vaccine,” Harlin said. “We want to keep all employees. We love them and we really need them.
“If they don’t have proof of vaccination status, they can use their leave accruals until those are gone. Then they can take an unpaid leave of absence. They can stay affiliated with us.”
The federal regulations are part of a broad range of mandates Biden requested from various federal agencies in September.
In October, Abbott, in opposition to Biden’s announcement, issued an executive order expanding his prohibition on vaccine mandates to include private as well as public employers. Texas last week sued the Biden administration over the mandate for companies with 100 or more employees.