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Florida hospitals caught in limbo over differing federal and state vaccine mandates

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Health care providers in Florida are stuck in the middle of a fight between their state and the federal government. On one side, the Biden administration requires health care workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they work at a facility that gets federal money. The Supreme Court upheld that requirement just last week. On the other side, Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, who has called the Biden administration's policy, quote, "insane." He signed a state law in November that bans employers from mandating COVID vaccines unless they offer broad exemptions. So what are hospitals in Florida supposed to do?

Let's bring in Mary Mayhew. She is president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, and we have reached her in Tallahassee. Mary Mayhew, welcome.

MARY MAYHEW: Thank you.

KELLY: Lay out the stakes here for hospitals, for health care facilities that follow the federal rule, the Biden administration rule, and are enforcing this vaccine mandate.

MAYHEW: I think it's critically important to understand that hospitals don't want to be caught between the state government and the federal government, although I think it's important also to emphasize it's not unusual to have a conflict between state and federal rules. This one just happens to have a lot of national attention.

KELLY: And a lot of money involved. As I understand it, the state is threatening big fines levied against facilities that comply with the federal rules, ranging from $10,000 per employee violation, up to $50,000.

MAYHEW: Well, we certainly don't want to see any facility dealing with legal action from the state. Hospitals are working closely on their compliance. And, of course, hospitals have been working since the vaccine was deployed - now a little more than a year ago - to educate their staff, to encourage their staff to get vaccinated. They have made significant progress in increasing those vaccination rates.

And again, I think also important to emphasize - right now we're responding to yet another surge. So for hospitals, the focus is on ensuring that our doors are open and that we are able to provide critical health care services to those who need access to that care.

KELLY: I hear you speaking very carefully about this very challenging situation. But bottom line, how big a pickle does this put Florida hospitals in?

MAYHEW: Well, you can't be in compliance with both based upon the breadth of exemptions that exist within the state law. So hospitals are working very closely with their staff, first of all, to encourage them to get vaccinated, but then to identify where there are exemptions that fit within the Medicare rule. Where we become potentially at odds with the state requirement is if an employee fails to fit.

KELLY: Do you know how many people we're talking, how many Florida hospital workers are still to be vaccinated?

MAYHEW: I don't have the latest data. Obviously, that changes daily as more staff are vaccinated. But there certainly are still many staff who are not fully vaccinated.

KELLY: And I guess, it's - that's of concern because of the staffing shortages, which are making headlines nationwide and I'm sure are problematic in Florida as well.

MAYHEW: Again, it is one of the worst workforce shortages that the hospitals have seen in decades. It is at a crisis level. The dependency on staffing agencies, temporary staffing agencies - that is alarming.

KELLY: Well, and not to lose sight of that this is all happening at the height of the omicron surge. This is, you know, bureaucratic battles on top of the hospitals already struggling to handle this latest wave. How's it going?

MAYHEW: Well, that really is what is so important right now - is that our hospitals are able to respond to this latest surge. The impact it has had on our staff - they are exhausted, and because during this latest surge we have had so many staff who have been out sick with COVID, very different from our experiences in the previous surges. So hospitals are having to terminate access to certain services, not because they're redeploying staff to the bedside as they've done during previous surges, but because they simply do not have the staff to provide certain services.

KELLY: That is Mary Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association. Thank you.

MAYHEW: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.