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Chief Medical Officer Explains What Goes Into Requiring COVID-19 Vaccines At Work

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A great number of U.S. companies now require their employees to get the coronavirus vaccine. Google and Facebook, Adobe and VMware are among tech companies. New York City has announced all city employees will need a shot or submit to weekly testing. The University of Pennsylvania health system announced back in May that all of their employees will need to be vaccinated by September 1.

Dr. Patrick Brennan is chief medical officer for Penn Medicine and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

PATRICK BRENNAN: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: I have to ask, is there an or else in this mandate? Will you fire people who don't comply?

BRENNAN: Well, there will be consequences for sure. That's not our intention to fire people. What we're intending to do is get everybody vaccinated so that our workplace, our staff and our patients can be as safe as possible. But there will be consequences.

SIMON: That sounds like I'd rather not, but yes. If we need to let someone go because they won't be vaccinated, that's what we'll do.

BRENNAN: That's right. That's right.

SIMON: You'll be sued, won't you?

BRENNAN: Possibly. We're prepared for that consequence.

SIMON: And you include office workers, right? Not just medical personnel.

BRENNAN: We do. We do. We're trying to apply the policy as equitably as possible. And while we still have people who are working remotely, many people are now coming to the office, at least part of the time. And we don't know when others may be called in, so we are expecting everyone to be vaccinated.

SIMON: There have been complaints?

BRENNAN: Sure, sure. We've had much more support for it than we've had complaints - a lot of support from outside the organization. And as we started this, most people were already vaccinated. But there are pockets of complaints.

SIMON: Seventy percent of your staff was vaccinated.

BRENNAN: Seventy percent is where we were when we started the process back in May. We believe that about 95% of our physicians are vaccinated at this point in time.

SIMON: But 5% aren't.

BRENNAN: No, but they still have time. And we're - you know, we're working through the verification process. We think that they'll all be vaccinated.

SIMON: You have religious exemptions?

BRENNAN: We are permitting both religious and medical exemptions. There aren't very many medical exemptions that that will qualify, but there are religious exemptions as well. And we have, I think, a pretty rigorous process to obtain the exemptions and then to fairly vet them.

SIMON: Dr. Brennan, I wonder if you've learned something at Penn Medicine that other companies and corporations and, for that matter, small businesses might learn from.

BRENNAN: We've learned a lot about the support we have within the organization. We've learned that the issues of risk and respect are a two-sided coin. While we hear people out, there is certainly respect for co-workers and for patients who want the people that they associate with to be vaccinated as well.

And we're trying to respect the concerns that the communities of color have about the historic mistreatment that they've had in the health care systems. And I don't see the vaccine as being like those prior episodes, but we're trying to be sensitive to those. We don't want to see still more disparity created by a vaccination process that unfairly favors those who have privilege. But not everyone is going to be comfortable with the message, so we have to explain why it's necessary.

And you really need a ground game. You really need to have information in the hands of managers, and managers need to be working directly with their staff to get them to provide the information about whether they've been vaccinated, you know, giving that information to the organization so that it can verify it, and then reaching out to those people who have not been responsive yet. Those are some of the key learnings that I think we've had.

SIMON: Dr. Patrick Brennan is chief medical officer of Penn Medicine. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.