So long, heroes: Mayo Clinic fires 700 workers over vaccination mandate

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

I’m so old that I can remember when first responders and health-care workers were the Heroes of the Pandemic. It doesn’t take long to go from hero to goat these days, not even in the middle of a personnel shortage in the health-care industry and a spike in transmissions that clearly include vaccinated people. Mayo Clinic fired 700 of its workers last night for failing to get vaccinated according to its mandate, a number that amounts to one percent of its overall workforce:

Mayo Clinic now confirms it fired 700 employees Tuesday who did not comply with its policy to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday.

The dismissed employees make up about 1% of Mayo’s 73,000 workforce. Officials say while it’s sad to lose valuable employees, it’s essential to keep patients, the workforce, visitors and communities safe.

The Star Tribune also reported on the epidemic of pink slips in Rochester. Some employees requested and received an exemption based on religious belief, but everyone else got canned who hadn’t at least started the series of vaccinations. The 1% number lines up with other Minnesota-based health care systems, the Strib noted:

In December, Minneapolis-based Allina Health reported that 99.8% of its roughly 27,000 workers were either vaccinated or received vaccine-mandate exemptions. Allina said it has parted ways with 53 people.

Fewer than 1% of employees at Sanford Health, which runs hospitals and clinics across the Dakotas and greater Minnesota, were suspended in December for not starting their vaccine series or receiving an approved exemption. …

Mayo Clinic is Minnesota’s largest employer. It also operates hospitals and clinics in Arizona, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The clinic required non-exempt workers by Jan. 3 to receive at least one dose of vaccine and not be overdue for a second shot, if they were receiving a two-dose vaccine. Staff continued to get first doses through Monday in order to be compliant, Mayo said.

“While Mayo Clinic is saddened to lose valuable employees, we need to take all steps necessary to keep our patients, workforce, visitors and communities safe,” the clinic said in the statement. “If individuals released from employment choose to get vaccinated at a later date, the opportunity exists for them to apply and return to Mayo Clinic for future job openings.

“Based on science and data, it’s clear that vaccination keeps people out of the hospital and saves lives. That’s true for everyone in our communities — and it’s especially true for the many patients with serious or complex diseases who seek care at Mayo Clinic each day.”

So let’s get the usual caveats out of the way first. Anyone who isn’t contraindicated for vaccines on the basis of medical issues should get themselves vaccinated and boosted ASAP. It’s the best way to avoid serious illness from a COVID-19 infection. All of the data on hospitalizations and deaths underscore the wide chasm of such outcomes between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Naturally acquired immunity helps and might be enough for some, but vaccination is the best tool to prevent serious, negative outcomes.

However, that applies to the people themselves. The CDC has already declared that while vaccinated and boosted people might not be as contagious as the unvaccinated, they are still vectors for transmission nonetheless — both of the Delta and Omicron variants. Especially Omicron, where asymptomatic transmission has already been well documented:

The Omicron variant likely will spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and how easily Omicron spreads compared to Delta remains unknown. CDC expects that anyone with Omicron infection can spread the virus to others, even if they are vaccinated or don’t have symptoms.

If that’s the case, and if Omicron is crowding out Delta (which also likely transmits asymptomatically), then what’s the point of vaccine mandates in the workplace? The vaccinated can carry and spread the virus too. There may be an argument for masking in the workplace, but not with the masks currently in most use, and it would only mitigate the issue, not eliminate it. These workplaces will spread the virus whether or not they have 100% vaccination compliance.

If it’s to prevent workplace illness and shortages, this policy equates to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Mayo is creating a workplace staffing shortage by firing employees ahead of … what, exactly? Sick days? Even the fully vaccinated will get sick — just mildly sick rather than seriously, but probably sick enough to sit out of work. Even those employees who don’t get sick but test positive are expected to isolate for at least five days, so again … what’s gained in firing workers whose decisions only really impact their own health in this context?

As an employer, Mayo has the prerogative to set its conditions for employment, within reason. Vaccination mandates in a health-care services setting are probably within the law, apart from any collective-bargaining agreement issues. That doesn’t make them wise, right, or productive. And in handling people who have been on the front lines of the pandemic from the beginning, it looks like a demonstration of breathtaking ingratitude on Mayo’s part.