RWJBH to make vaccination mandatory for all of its more than 35,000 employees

Bonamo, chief medical officer, says concern for safety of employees, patients trumps all objections

Dr. John Bonamo. (RWJBarnabas Health)

Dr. John Bonamo appreciates the fact that we live in a country based on personal choice, but he also feels that can be trumped by a need for public good — and public safety.

That’s why Bonamo, the chief medical and quality officer at RWJBarnabas Health, fully supports the system’s announcement Monday that it will require all staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.

In addition, RWJBH officials said all vendors and volunteers will need to show proof of vaccination by that date, too.

“We think this is a real call to safety,” he told ROI-NJ. “People have strongly held beliefs, but we believe the safety approach trumps everything else. And that is why we felt we needed to do this.”

RWJBH is one of the state’s largest private employers — with more than 35,000 employees, 9,000 physicians and 1,000 residents and interns.

Bonamo said the system has done well with vaccinations; he approximates 70% of all staff has gotten the required dose. That being said, he estimates the mandate will impact approximately 10,000 employees.

And Bonamo fully admits he’s surprised the number is that high. He feels any debate on the issue should be over.

“There’s a lot of things we do in health care and other aspects of our lives where there are different schools of thought, but if you go to the science and the people who understand this disease and the vaccine, there’s incontrovertible evidence that it’s safe and effective,” he said.

RWJBH is far from the first health system to make such a requirement. Becker’s Hospital Review lists approximately 50 that have made some sort of requirement, including three others based in the state (Hackensack Meridian Health, Virtua Health and University Hospital).

(See the constantly updating list here.)

But RWJBH was one of the first to implement some type of plan. Earlier this year, RWJBH mandated all supervisory level or higher employees (approximately 3,000) be vaccinated by June 30. The system said 99.7% of such employees complied.

Last week, RWJBH drew national attention when it separated or terminated six employees who failed to comply.

Bonamo said the organization had no other option — and that he hopes the dismissals or separations will be noted by the approximately 10,000 employees who still need to be vaccinated.

“I hope that those terminations or separations were not in vain,” he said. “Hopefully, people will look at that and say, ‘They’re serious about this.’ We tried to let people know we were serious all along, but sometimes, with certain folks, you have to go to the nth degree to show them that you’re really serious.”

For Bonamo, the mandate is about the mission of the company: health care.

“First and foremost, we are about all things safety — and never has there been something so important and so clear-cut with an organization that believes in safety as the guiding principle for everything we do,” he said.

“Some people just object to being told what to do. I get that. And I get that we are a country built on freedom. But, when your freedom can kill me, that’s no longer your right as far as I’m concerned. When your decision can adversely affect other people, we get into a greater good conversation. And we’ve got to do what’s good for everyone.”