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Tampa Bay area hospitals decide to follow federal vaccine mandate despite new state law

Under the federal mandate, workers at health care facilities that provide Medicare and Medicaid services must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Hospitals across the Tampa Bay Area are moving forward with COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The decisions are being made despite legislation signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

During a special legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 1B, which prohibits private employers from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees without certain exemptions. The law has forced some to choose between the federal rule requiring health care workers to be vaccinated or state law.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital and BayCare Health System are some of the long list of health care facilities that have announced they would be following the federal directive, requiring all healthcare employees and contractors to be vaccinated.

"Sarasota Memorial Health Care System notified its employees and medical staff last week that it is updating its COVID-19 vaccination policy to ensure compliance with the federal vaccine mandate and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) rules," Sarasota Memorial Hospital spokesperson Kim Savage said in a statement.

BayCare says it is still "in the process of educating our team members about the CMS requirements and collecting their vaccination information as we do everything we can to comply with these new federal guidelines."

Under the federal mandate, workers at health care facilities that provide Medicare and Medicaid services must be fully vaccinated with either the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Jan. 4, 2022. Workers can be granted an opt-out only if they qualify for a medical or religious exemption. 

But, those approved for exemptions will have to still undergo COVID-19 testing twice a week at outside facilities and wear masks.

The federal mandate’s implementation is raising concerns about a massive exodus of staff from healthcare facilities at a critical time when the industry is already dealing with a shortage of health care workers.

Dr. Jill Roberts with USF College of Public Health says, with both Flu and travel season upon us, the mandates have become necessary to avoid setbacks in the fight against COVID-19.

Most hospitals and healthcare facilities have not mandated vaccines until now because they’ve had successful voluntary vaccination rates. However, health leaders say the last hold-outs of unvaccinated still pose a risk to patients.

While BayCare health did not provide its numbers, Sarasota Memorial Hospital is reporting 82 percent of the nearly 7,800-member workforce are fully vaccinated.

Both the federal vaccine mandate and Florida's recent law are currently being challenged in court.