PROVIDENCE – Repeated employee outreach – including small group meetings, daily bulletins and even bringing in faith leaders and pregnancy specialists – has proven effective in Rhode Island at closing the COVID-19 vaccination gap and preventing worsening staffing problems, according to panelists at the Providence Business News 2021 Fall Health Care Summit on Wednesday.
The focus of the virtual summit was on the challenges of the pandemic and consequential new trends in the health care industry, with the first of two panels leading off with a discussion on the fallout from vaccine mandates in the Ocean State and how employers have made progress with the vaccine holdouts.
At Lifespan Corp., ultimately 200 people from a workforce of 17,000 spread across several medical facilities are no longer employed due to their refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine, in accordance with a state-enforced mandate for workers at all health care facilities that went into effect on Oct. 1.
Lisa Abbott, Lifespan senior vice president for human resources and community affairs, said “losing anyone is difficult” due to staffing shortages that were already occurring during the pandemic, but that company outreach efforts boost the vaccination rate from 70% at the end of August to 99% by October. Some employees were more resistant than others, she said, but Lifespan looked into factors influencing them, including religion and pregnancy, and tried to tailor its outreach to those concerns.
“We had specialists come and conduct town halls that were very, very highly attended, and I think moved the needle in terms of people deciding, in fact, they were going to go for the vaccination,” Abbott said.
These efforts have helped prevent shutdowns of elective procedures and surgeries, she said, and the vaccine mandate didn’t exacerbate pre-existing staffing problems “as much as you might think.”
“But it’s challenging nonetheless,” said Abbott, who also said Lifespan is welcoming back any of those 200 workers who lost their jobs if they decide to get vaccinated.
Abbott was joined on the panel by lawyer Matthew Reeber, a partner at Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara LLC; Thomas McCarthy, executive director of Rhode Island’s COVID-19 Response Team; Michele Lederberg, executive vice president, chief administrative officer and chief legal officer at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island; Dr. Robert MacArthur, chief medical officer at Commonwealth Care Alliance; and Dr. Christopher Ottiano, medical director at Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island;
The town hall-style meetings and expert speakers have been “crucially important” interventions with the subset of employees who hold an “activist position,” said Reeber, who specializes in employment law.
He said this practice should be replicated at private companies with 100 or more workers that would be subject to the COVID-19 vaccine/testing mandate announced by President Joe Biden.
“We have this core group concerned about religious exemptions? Bring in a faith leader,” Reeber said. “We have this core group concerned about the impact of the vaccine on someone who is pregnant or could become pregnant. We bring in a doctor in that specialty. Those are the lessons we’ve learned. They’re very helpful and effective.”
Thomas McCarthy, executive director of Rhode Island’s COVID-19 Response Team, said a surprising amount of health care workers who have seen firsthand the damage inflicted by the virus have been susceptible to misinformation about the vaccine or didn’t feel compelled to get the shot because they felt they weren’t personally in danger.
However, the state mandate and “continued engagement” from public health experts and employers led many to change their minds, with a 30-percentage-point increase in the amount of vaccinated health care workers from 44,000 in the beginning of September to 57,000 presently, he said.
“Even people closest to some of these really challenging difficult outcomes from COVID had questions. They had misinformation that they needed answers to,” McCarthy said. “Or they just hadn’t felt the sense of urgency because they didn’t understand why it was important to them as an individual, when we’re talking about population health. What that really drove home for me is that continued engagement is absolutely critical.”
In the second panel discussion, participants discussed improving affordability, the future of remote health care, addressing pandemic fatigue and mental health concerns among employees, and supporting underserved populations.
To improve affordable access to health care, the panelists suggested increased investment in primary care, focusing more on improving quality outcomes and calling for greater transparency in drug pricing.
Providers also need to understand the multiple social factors that influence a person’s health, panelists said.
If a diabetic person has access to insulin but not to food that supports their dietary needs, for example, “every fundamental building block of a good outcome for them is seriously in jeopardy,” said Dr. Raymond Powrie, chief clinical officer and executive chief of medicine at the Care New England Health System.
The panelists also discussed the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy, which they emphasized as safe and highly recommended for preventing severe illness and death among a more vulnerable population.
Dr. Al Kurose, a founder and president of Coastal Medical and senior vice president for primary care and population health at Lifespan, said that while fatigue has long been an issue among health care employees, it has increased greatly due to the pandemic.
Despite “remarkable progress” in adaptations made since the early days of the pandemic, people need to stay vigilant in the months ahead, according to Powrie.
“I think we’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel,” Powrie said, “but we’re entering the cold season, and I don’t think there’s room for wiggle,” even with the state’s high vaccination rates.”
The second panel also included Dr. Claire Levesque, chief medical officer for commercial products at Tufts Health Plan, and Health Insurance Commissioner Patrick Tigue.
Jacquelyn Voghel contributed to this report.
Marc Larocque and Jacquelyn Voghel are PBN staff writers. Contact Larocque at Larocque@PBN.com. Contact Voghel at Voghel@PBN.com.