As Louisiana faces its worst surge of the coronavirus since the pandemic’s beginning, leaders from the sprawling Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady health system on Tuesday announced the most drastic action yet taken by any private hospital system in the state: a requirement that all employees get vaccinated within the next few months.

The vaccine mandate will affect thousands of workers across the state, from Baton Rouge to Bogalusa, as a devastating fourth wave of the virus sweeps across the state. Among the facilities where staff, students, contractors and volunteers will be required to be vaccinated: the state’s largest stand-alone hospital, Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake; Our Lady of Lourdes in Acadiana; Our Lady of the Angels in Bogalusa; St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe; and St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi.

“We must act now to protect each other from spreading the delta variant and protect vulnerable patients from exposure,” said Dr. Richard Vath, president and CEO of the health system. “Vaccines are the best means of accomplishing this and more important than ever as the lasting step to end this pandemic. We should not wait any longer.”

Other hospital systems in the state have not yet followed suit, with some of their leaders saying they simply cannot afford to lose any more staff by mandating the vaccine. But Baton Rouge General officials said Tuesday that employees who are not vaccinated will have to start completing quarterly training on the risks of COVID by the end of September. And Dr. John Heaton, president of LCMC Health in New Orleans, said he is “considering a possible mandate in the future.”

Our Lady of the Lake COVID vaccine mandate timeline

Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System will require all employees to receive the coronavirus vaccine in phases. 

Representatives with Ochsner Health System, the largest hospital group in the state, reiterated Tuesday that they plan to mandate the shots once they receive full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They currently only have emergency use authorization, but Ochsner CEO Warner Thomas said Tuesday that 1,144 Ochsner employees have started their vaccine series just in the last week as the delta variant slams their hospitals.

Representatives with HCA Healthcare, the majority owner of Tulane Medical Center, did not answer questions Tuesday. And employees of the Southeastern Louisiana Veterans Health Care System will be required to be vaccinated as part of a broader mandate for all health workers of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

How soon those now required to receive the vaccine at clinics and hospitals run by the Franciscan Missionaries must get inoculated depends on which position they hold. About 61% of Our Lady of the Lake’s staff has already been vaccinated.

The clock starts Aug. 15 for managers, doctors, residents and advanced practice providers such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners. If those workers are not vaccinated by Oct. 31, then they will go on unpaid leave. By Nov. 30, they’ll lose their jobs.

The clock starts Sept. 15 for the rest of the Franciscan Missionaries health care staff. Those still unvaccinated will go on unpaid suspension as of Nov. 30, and they’ll lose their jobs by Dec. 31.

Students, faculty and staff at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University will have to show proof of vaccination by Aug. 13, while all new hires to the health system will be required to show proof of vaccination by Sept. 15.

Shortly after Franciscan Missionaries’ announcement Tuesday morning, Baton Rouge General officials outlined a new approach, albeit a less drastic one. Unvaccinated employees there will be required to go through quarterly trainings, starting at the end of September, “designed to dispel the myths and misinformation that leads many unvaccinated people to overestimate the risks of the vaccine and underestimate the risks of COVID.” They will also be required to keep masking, regardless of whether mask mandates are lifted.

CEO Edgardo Tenreiro said that he is not considering a vaccination requirement at this point, though he hopes the new measure will boost the hospital staff’s vaccination rate from 50% to 70%. The renowned Mayo Clinic, a partner of Baton Rouge General, has taken a similar approach.

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“Charting this middle-of-the-road course might get us there more effectively,” Tenreiro said Tuesday. “Coming across as too heavy-handed might be counter productive.”

The question of whether to mandate vaccines has been front and center over the past few weeks, as an increasing number of private companies, universities and governmental agencies have announced vaccine requirements for employees. On Tuesday, for instance, the meat conglomerate Tyson Foods announced all employees will be required to be vaccinated by Nov. 1, and New York City’s mayor announced vaccine requirements for eating inside restaurants and going into gyms.

Bill Corbett, a labor and employment law expert at LSU's Paul M. Hebert Law Center, said Tuesday that chances seem slim that private employers will be sued successfully for mandating the coronavirus vaccine. Courts have largely upheld mandates so far, including a Texas hospital’s vaccine mandate for employees.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, I would not expect employers to lose many of these lawsuits,” Corbett said. “I’m not aware of any state law that would prohibit private employers from requiring it.”

Employers, however, are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees who cannot receive the vaccines due to disability, or who object on religious grounds.

“You have to make accommodations, but that’s a different matter than if you can mandate it,” Corbett said.

An Our Lady of the Lake spokesperson said Tuesday that employees can go through a process with the hospital’s human resources department if they claim medical or religious exemptions to the vaccine. A spokesperson for Franciscan University also said students, faculty and staff may request an exemption “for reasons consistent with Louisiana state vaccine laws.”

It remains to be seen whether any of the vaccine mandates in Louisiana will be put to the legal test. The state’s attorney general, Jeff Landry, has threatened to sue multiple institutions over such mandates, including a private medical school in Monroe. Landry has also pressed LSU officials to assure him that they will not mandate the vaccine.

The legal thresholds for mandating the vaccine are different for public and private institutions, though federal courts have already upheld a vaccine mandate for Indiana University, which is public.

Though Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady is a private entity, it receives contracts from the state to provide certain types of care, including to the poor and underinsured.

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, The Lake's chief medical officer and an infectious disease expert, said Monday that her hospital is understaffed and is out of beds for patients.

"These are the darkest days of this pandemic," O'Neal said. "We are no longer giving adequate care to these patients."

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