Northwell CEO: Vaccination mandates work

After shedding about 2 percent of its workforce, New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health is 100 percent vaccinated against COVID-19 and doesn't expect disruption to services. 

Northwell announced its vaccination mandate Aug. 2, and the state of New York followed shortly after, rolling out its requirement for healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 on Aug. 16. Northwell synced its deadline to that of the state: Sept. 27.

Northwell took a tiered approach, first requiring vaccination for new hires, students, volunteers and vendors. By Sept. 27, 1,400 unvaccinated employees exited the system after not complying with the mandate. That amounts to less than 2 percent of its entire workforce. "Mandates work," Northwell CEO Michael Dowling told Becker's.

"My HR staff did a terrific job," Mr. Dowling said. He described the rollout of the systemwide COVID-19 vaccination mandate as "unbelievably time-consuming," including one-on-one meetings with each unvaccinated employee to answer questions or address their concerns. The 23-hospital system also analyzed each individual department's staffing, vaccination rates and attitudes toward vaccination to understand the implications of the mandate and prepare accordingly ahead of the deadline. 

Mr. Dowling said the change poses no disruption because Northwell is ramping up its hiring, reassigning employees throughout the system and using agency staffing and overtime. "We'll never get to the point where we need to shut down a program," he told Becker's. The system hired 220 people the week of Oct. 4 and is ready to maintain that pace and hire 250 on a weekly basis. 

It remains to be seen where unvaccinated healthcare professionals in New York state will go for employment.

"I do assume some of the people who have separated from the organization may very well reconsider," Mr. Dowling said. "Your choices will be limited if you want to stay in healthcare." He noted that Northwell will meet with any workers who left the system unvaccinated but receive shots against COVID-19 in the days ahead and conduct an interview process for rehiring.  

Sandra Lindsay, RN, director of nursing critical care at Northwell's Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was the first American to receive the COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 14, 2020. Mr. Dowling recalled the anticipation for the vaccine throughout 2020, and said he did not anticipate that there would ever be so much controversy over its use in healthcare.

"You would have assumed people who work in healthcare would easily come to the conclusion that if you are going to take care of patients, irrespective of circumstances, you should be vaccinated against a virus that is deadly," he told Becker's. "Ninety-eight percent of people understood that. Ninety-eight percent said it's the right thing to do. For the others, they made the choice they aren't going to do it. That's upsetting. I didn't terminate anybody, they decided they didn't want to work in an organization with these requirements." 

Mr. Dowling encourages his colleagues who are rolling out similar mandates at hospitals and health systems to keep their priorities in check. 

"Your core job is to protect patient care. Then everything else that has to be done is to accommodate that goal," he said. "Roll it out over time, in an organized way, and be ready to accept the criticism, controversy and demonstrations. But know you did the right thing."

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