The University of Mississippi Medical Center announced a new vaccination policy on Thursday that will eventually require, with limited exceptions, employees and students to get fully vaccinated after the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines receive full authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The policy will go into effect on July 26 and be phased in over three months. Managers and supervisors will be covered first, followed by direct patient-care employees. Then, all others not included in the earlier phases — such as students, contractors and vendors — will receive a vaccine.
With this approach, all UMMC employees and students will be fully vaccinated or wearing a N95 mask on UMMC premises by Nov. 1. Fully vaccinated staff and students will only be required to wear a mask in patient-care areas.
“For the safety of our patients, for the safety of our patients’ families, for the safety of our employees and our own families, we feel that this is the right thing to do,” Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the chief executive of UMMC, said during a press conference Friday morning.
Wearing an N95 mask will be an alternative option to being fully vaccinated only until the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines receive full FDA approval. Both Pfizer and Moderna have applied for full approval and are expected to receive it eventually. If that occurs, it will then become a condition of employment at UMMC or enrollment in one of its schools. Looking further ahead, if a third booster shot is recommended by the FDA in the future, all employees and students will be required to wear an N95 mask until they receive it.
Woodward said that over half of UMMC’s roughly 10,000 employees and 3,000 students have already been vaccinated on-site. Those who have been vaccinated elsewhere will have their status verified by either presenting their vaccination card, or giving UMMC permission to check their status in MSDH’s vaccination database.
UMMC leadership hopes this policy will nudge those few thousand employees and students who remain unvaccinated to get their shots. Woodward said that they hope UMMC won’t lose any employees over this decision, especially with the shortage of nurses in many of the hospital’s clinical areas, but acknowledged the possibility.
“That to us is kind of the the heaviest part of this, knowing that some of our own will feel unhappy about this,” Woodward said, “but at the end of the day, our obligation is to the patients.”
Woodward said they prepared themselves for the flood of hate mail they’d receive after making this announcement, and that she continues to struggle to understand how politicized the issue of vaccinations has become.
“This is a new vaccine, but the idea of requiring a vaccine for the public’s safety, for your own safety, is not a new concept,” Woodward said.
All UMMC visitors will continue to be required to wear a mask, regardless of their vaccination status, as UMMC does not have the ability or logistical capacity to verify the status of all visitors.
Many colleges and universities across the country have already announced vaccination mandates for the coming school year, as have many health care providers and other employers.
In Mississippi, UMMC is the first public higher ed institution to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students. The University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University have previously said they can’t mandate the COVID-19 vaccine because it is not specifically included in the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) board’s immunization policy.
Caron Blanton, IHL’s spokesperson, told Mississippi Today that the board’s policy does not prevent the universities from requiring vaccinations that aren’t expressly included. IHL’s policy, Blanton wrote in an email, “represents the minimum requirements that must be enforced by the universities. Additional requirements are not prohibited.”
IHL has not addressed an immunization requirement at its board meetings. At a forum in early June, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said that “in college, where you do have an opportunity to get vaccinated and the outcomes are relatively mild for the majority of college folks, it’s hard to really raise the level of necessity to that level. Right now it doesn’t seem to be justified.”
Faculty and staff across the state have urged the IHL board to mandate the vaccine. On Wednesday, a group of Mississippi State University professors sent the board an open petition, signed by 430 people, asking for a COVID-19 immunization requirement for students this fall.
Dr. Alan Jones, UMMC’s associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs and COVID-19 clinical response leader, said on Friday that the new policy was motivated by the recent increase in cases and hospitalizations sparked by the Delta variant. He also said that UMMC currently has more minors hospitalized with COVID-19 than they have throughout the pandemic.
“We don’t know, but we hope that other hospitals and healthcare organizations in the state will follow our lead,” Jones said.
The Delta variant has considerably increased the already high risks posed by the virus to unvaccinated people. Between June 3 and July 1, 95% of all COVID-19 infections in Mississippi were among the unvaccinated. During that period, the same group also accounted for 90% of hospitalizations and 89% of deaths.
Despite the wide availability of vaccines and the risks posed by variants, Mississippi continues to rank last in the nation in the share of its population that has been vaccinated. With over 2 million shots administered, only 33% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated.