COVID-19 vaccinations have been optional but largely encouraged by medical and health care professionals since the first doses rolled out in Texas in December. As of June 23, 43% of Montgomery County’s population and 48% of Harris County’s population had been fully vaccinated.

But with vaccines available to all population groups over the age of 12, some employers across the nation are beginning to mandate them. Legally, private businesses can require employees to be vaccinated, although they must provide exceptions such as for religious beliefs, said Valerie Koch, co-director and assistant professor at the Health Law and Policy Institute at the University of Houston Law Center.

Steve Hoffart, owner of Magnolia Pharmacy on FM 1488, said he has received numerous calls from employers ranging from health care providers to real estate firms asking for guidance on whether to require or incentivize a COVID-19 vaccine for employees.

Hoffart said while he does not require his staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19, he understands the challenge employers face in weighing employee preferences, public health and workplace safety.

“I am a business owner; I am a health care provider; and I’m also a very freedom-loving American,” he said. “Wearing all three hats ... I do see the challenges, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer.”

Local action


On March 31, Houston Methodist became the first major health care system in the nation to require its employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and CEO and President Marc Boom said he believes others will soon follow suit. The hospital system has two clinics in Tomball and Magnolia as well as the Willowbrook hospital south of Tomball.


“Now CEOs of other health care institutions are calling nearly every day to ask how we are doing it,” Boom said in an email addressed to employees in April. “I have spoken to countless hospital leaders across the country who plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination soon.”

Outside of hospitals, cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean International, which offers cruises from Galveston, are requiring guests age 16 and older to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Delta Airlines, which operates out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, began requiring all new hires in the U.S. to be vaccinated against COVID-19 beginning May 17.

A survey conducted in January and February by PNC Financial Services, a bank holding company and financial services corporation, found that more than 40% of the 150 small- to medium-sized businesses surveyed in the Greater Houston area plan to require employees to be vaccinated. It is not clear what businesses in Tomball and Magnolia may have been surveyed.

As of press time, conversations with business officials in the Tomball and Magnolia area did not indicate vaccine mandates are occurring locally.


“We haven’t specifically heard from employers whether or not they’re requiring the vaccination,” said Kelly Violette, executive director of the Tomball Economic Development Corp.

Jason Millsaps, chief of staff for Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough and executive director of the Montgomery County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, echoed that sentiment during a May 27 health care panel with the Greater Magnolia Parkway Chamber of Commerce.

“We have a high number of folks that just have a conscientious objection to vaccines in this county,” he said. “In this county, it’s always going to be voluntary, never forced.”

Still, some experts predict there could be a domino effect.


“I think more businesses over time will start mandating the COVID-19 vaccine, especially if it becomes more available,” Koch said.

Health care systems


Although local officials said COVID-19 vaccination requirements will likely not be widespread, area hospitals are beginning to require or consider requiring them for employees.

“Science has proven that the COVID-19 vaccines are very safe and very effective,” Boom said. “We would never ask [our employees] to do anything that we thought was unsafe.”

As of May 18, 98% of its employees had been vaccinated, enough to achieve herd immunity among staff, hospital officials said. Herd immunity is the level of vaccination needed to reach immunity in a population.

Boom said since Houston Methodist publicly announced its vaccine policy, it has been met with both support and pushback. According to Houston Methodist, 178 employees had not yet complied with the requirement as of early June. Also, 117 employees filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County, stating vaccines authorized under emergency use should not be mandated as a condition of employment. The lawsuit was dismissed in June, but the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jared Woodfill, said in an email they will appeal.


HCA Houston Healthcare, which includes HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, stated because the COVID-19 vaccines are under emergency use authorization, it is not requiring vaccinations at this time.

Also serving the Greater Houston area, Baylor College of Medicine will likely mandate the COVID-19 vaccine to employees in the fall, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs.

Legality


States, not the federal government, can mandate vaccinations when there is a public health need, Koch said. However, there must be certain exemptions, such as for religious reasons, and vaccines cannot be physically forced upon someone.

On April 5, Gov. Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-35, which states Texas will never mandate COVID-19 vaccines—although this order specifies only vaccines under an emergency use authorization cannot be mandated. It is not clear if the order would change under full FDA approval. The order also prohibits entities receiving state funds from requiring it.

Montgomery County officials said they will not mandate vaccination. Rafael Lemaitre, communications director for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, said the county is providing various incentives for those who get the shot at NRG Stadium—from gift cards to tickets—but is not considering a vaccine requirement.


Harris County also announced June 3 it will award a weekly $5,000 scholarship for at least 10 weeks to students receiving the vaccine from a Harris County Public Health site.

Statewide, lawmakers filed bills opposing various requirements during the 87th legislative session that ended May 31. Senate Bill 968, which was signed into law, prohibits government entities from issuing vaccine passports as well as businesses from requiring customers to show proof of vaccination.

Business decision


David Barron, a Tomball resident and labor and employment attorney, said federal agencies recently relaxed guidance for businesses regarding vaccination etiquette, making it easier for employers to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine. For example, Barron said the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration updated its guidelines in mid-May to no longer require employers to record COVID-19 vaccine side effects until May 2022.

“If things continue to get better, I would say it’s probably unlikely that additional employers would jump onto the mandate bandwagon,” he said. “If things turn the other way, I think there’s a good chance you will see employers [mandate].”

Timika Simmons, CEO of TOMAGWA HealthCare Ministries, said during a May 27 Magnolia chamber event that even if small businesses choose not to require the shot, it could still be helpful to understand the vaccination status of employees.

“If I at least know that 80% of my staff is vaccinated, that’s going to help me make decisions. ... I cannot sacrifice losing staff because I didn’t want someone offended by a vaccination question,” she said. “If ... no one’s getting vaccinated, then we may have to practice safe practices a little longer and keep requiring social distancing and masks.”