Lee Health employee vaccinations for COVID-19 jump to nearly 70%, even as mandate remains on hold

Frank Gluck
Fort Myers News-Press

Nearly 70% of Lee Health's 14,370 employees are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, a significant jump in inoculations since this summer and one that comes even as a federal shot mandate remains on hold.

The public hospital system began tracking employee vaccinations in the run-up to an expected Biden administration order for health care workers to get shots. The administration has since put that requirement on hold pending a number of legal challenges.

As of this week, more than 9,850 full- and part-time employees have had at least one dose of vaccine, according to the health system. That's roughly a 17% increase since September.

"Lee Health has seen a large increase in demand for the COVID-19 vaccination from our employees, and we are happy that nearly 70 percent of our team members have taken this important step in protecting themselves and our community,” Lee Health spokeswoman Mary Briggs said in an emailed statement.

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Ann Lee, a pharmacist for Lee Health, prepares COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site at Gulf Coast Medical Center. Vaccinations have picked up as the delta variant has started to spread.

Federal regulators in August finalized a rule requiring health care facilities to collect data on employee COVID-19 vaccination rates, separate from its now-paused mandate that employees also get their shots.

The goal, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was to allow the public to "make informed decisions when seeking care from hospitals, cancer centers and long-term care hospitals."

Prior to that, Lee Health had not tracked employee vaccinations other than those that took place in one of its own clinics. Lee Health operates about 95% of Lee County's acute-care hospital beds. 

What about NCH Healthcare System?

NCH Healthcare System, which operates Collier County's largest hospitals, requires employee vaccinations for COVID-19 but provides exemptions for medical and religious reasons as allowed under state law.

Spokesman Shawn McConnell has said that 100% of its 4,300 employees have either been vaccinated or qualified for exemptions.

A federal judge issued a nationwide stay on the Biden vaccine mandate after a number of states, including Florida, challenged the rule. Shortly thereafter, the Biden administration announced a halt to the rule until the courts settle the matter.

The Biden rule would have required any health care employees working with patients to be partially vaccinated by Dec. 6 and fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.

COVID-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in Lee and Collier counties last year, according to the Florida Department of Health.

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Vaccination rates:Lee County COVID-19 vaccine tracker: 62% of people fully vaccinated

In Lee County, 447,380 people have been fully vaccinated, or about 62% of the population. In Collier County, 254,580 residents are fully vaccinated, or about 70% of the population.

Since the start of the pandemic, 61,789 Floridians have died as a result of COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Florida ranks eighth in the nation for its rate of COVID-19 deaths — 287 per 100,000 people. 

Florida has seen a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases and deaths following a third (and the deadliest) spike over the summer. As of this week, about 1,400 hospitalized Floridians have COVID-19, federal data show. That's down from the peak of more than 16,500 earlier this year.

Frank Gluck is a watchdog reporter with The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Connect with him at fgluck@news-press.com or on Twitter: @FrankGluck.