LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Dr. Steven Achinger recalls Watson Clinic being among the first health care providers in Polk County to mandate masks and temperature checks at the start of the pandemic.
Now, Watson Clinic is requiring its 1,850 employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 1.
“We want to provide a safe environment for our patients. Given the recent events, we felt we could no longer do that without requiring COVID-19 vaccination,” said Dr. Achinger, Watson Clinic’s managing partner.
The physician-owned and operated medical group includes 220 physicians, most of whom were vaccinated early on.
The rest of the workforce has been slower to get their shots. Half of the workers are vaccinated, according to Dr. Achinger.
He anticipates losing some employees because of the policy.
“That is the most difficult part for our board of directors to grapple with that decision. The last thing we want to do is to cause any kind of division among the clinic family,” said Dr. Achinger.
Watson Clinic has required its employees to get flu shots for years.
“In health care, we educate. We don’t mandate,” said Nichole Murphy, a family nurse practitioner and member of “Moms for America” Polk County’s chapter.
Murphy planned to protest against Watson Clinic’s vaccine mandate Friday.
Watson Clinic’s 50% vaccination rate aligns with other health care providers’ rates, Murphy said.
“This is about our God-given liberty to body autonomy. That’s what this is about. It’s about our right to choose,” said Murphy.
Vaccine mandates are not a new concept, legal experts say.
“There is a history of requiring vaccinations for employees,” said Charles Gallagher, a litigation attorney with Gallagher & Associates in St. Petersburg. “Especially here in Florida where you’re working at an at-will capacity, you have to follow the mandate of the employer to maintain employment.”
Lakeland Regional Health is not following suit with a vaccine mandate.
“The vaccines are not mandatory at this time at Lakeland Regional Health, but we have seen a steady increase in the number of team members getting vaccinated in recent weeks,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement to 8 On Your Side Friday.
Lakeland senior living facility, The Estates at Carpenters, is moving towards a vaccine mandate for its employees.
Other large-scale employers are imposing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, including Disney, Walmart, and several federal agencies.