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Dr. Zeke Emanuel On His Call For Health Care Employers To Require Vaccines For Workers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Public health officials are describing a surge in COVID cases as a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And so today, more than 50 medical groups signed a joint statement. It calls on health care and long-term care employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The White House has endorsed this effort, and the veterans administration says it will require its frontline health care workers to be vaccinated. We are joined now by the man who organized the joint statement for medical groups. Dr. Zeke Emanuel is the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ZEKE EMANUEL: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: To start, can employers require workers to get vaccinated while these vaccines are still under emergency use authorization?

EMANUEL: I think that's a legal question you're asking me, and I'm not a lawyer. But as I understand it, the answer to that is yes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and courts have said that employers can require this vaccine, the COVID vaccine, even though it's under emergency use authorization. We should also remember that there's a mountain of data. A hundred and sixty-three million Americans have already been fully vaccinated. We know a lot about this vaccine, and it's tremendously effective and safe.

SHAPIRO: And given that health care workers are among those most at risk for this disease, can you explain why so many on the front lines remain unvaccinated?

EMANUEL: Well, I think they really reflect the rest of the population, which is - there's been a lot of misinformation. There's a lot of false understanding that, you know, it might cause infertility, might be incorporated into your DNA. And I think there's - you know, it often depends upon also the leader. You know, if there's a person on a nursing floor, and the head says, you know, I'm not going to do that, that influences everyone else. And I think when the head says, yes, that also influences everyone else. And so I think, you know, there's both big misinformation issues as well as local issues related to, you know, what the dynamic of the team is.

SHAPIRO: Tell us why you think mandates will move the needle. We've heard repeatedly that one of the best ways to get someone resistant to get the vaccine is to talk them through it - persuasion rather than coercion. So why do you think people will do this because their employer requires it?

EMANUEL: Well, first of all, Ari, we should - look. We have tried lots of things, right? We've made them - the vaccines readily available. You can go to any pharmacy and get them. We've made them free. Not only free, we've added incentives in many states. We've added education. We've worked with community leaders to try to persuade people. We've even had the president of the United States pleading with people on TV. That's gotten us to 50%, but we have to get much higher if we're really going to put COVID in the back mirror. And a lot of workers actually say if their employer requires it, they will get it. And you could see that at places like Houston Methodist, where they did have a mandate and over 99.5% of the workers there took the mandate and took the vaccine. I think, you know, nudging people to do the right thing often helps too. Lots of us know, well, we should do that, but don't get around to it. And the nudge of you have to do this help people - sometimes helps people get over that little barrier.

SHAPIRO: There does seem to be a movement towards mandates. New York City is going to require its municipal workers, including police officers and teachers, to get vaccinated or face weekly COVID-19 tests. California has announced the same for state employees and all health care workers. Do you think broad vaccination policies like this should be handled in this piecemeal way? Or would you rather see the federal government take a more active role? It is, after all, the largest employer in the U.S.

EMANUEL: Well, I do think that - well, first of all, I welcome the federal government taking an active role at the VA. I would like them to take an active role when it comes to the military. I think the last thing we need is the military not prepared in various places because of a COVID outbreak, and I think having a mandate among the military would be very important. We are a federal system for better and worse. And I think getting states out in front and having states realize that getting their population vaccinated is ultimately going to work. We've now seen in the last week, as you know, many Republicans coming out and urging their people to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, that happened after they propagated a lot of disinformation that didn't help. But I think, you know, it's not clear how the federal government issues a mandate or how the federal government enforces a mandate. Frankly, they don't have a police power.

SHAPIRO: Well, I mean, certainly, they could mandate all federal employees for starters.

EMANUEL: Yes, I do think - you know, if you're bringing people back to work, they should be vaccinated, it seems to me.

SHAPIRO: So more than 50 medical groups signed this joint statement that you coordinated that came out today. What's the response been from employers, from the health care companies that you directed this to?

EMANUEL: Well, I've gotten some calls (laughter). Will you help us? Will you talk to the unions? Will you record a short video that we can give to our workers? So I do think people want to see this consensus and want to embrace it.

SHAPIRO: Well, but are they willing to stick their neck out and mandate it, even if it does mean they get pushback from employees, from unions, from whoever might be opposed to such a mandate?

EMANUEL: I think that is where the tide is going, and I think the fact that people are reaching out to me suggests that they - that's what they want to do. They want to push forward on a mandate. And I think what would facilitate it, Ari, I would say is if the FDA would quickly approve these vaccines, give it a full approval not just an emergency approval. I think that's probably the last excuse in the book. And I think no one has any doubt that these are very safe and very effective. And I think that if that's done expeditiously, it would certainly help a lot of employers who want to mandate the vaccine.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Zeke Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thanks a lot.

EMANUEL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.