Georgia employers react to deadline for health care workers to be vaccinated

In this file photo, the ambulance bay is full from a surge of COVID-19 patients. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

caption arrowCaption
In this file photo, the ambulance bay is full from a surge of COVID-19 patients. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Health care facilities across Georgia wrestled with new challenges ahead Thursday as new rules by the federal government will require health care workers to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 with no option for weekly testing in lieu of vaccination.

While many health care leaders have supported vaccination as a key way to protect employees and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many worry about mandates putting health care facilities in a bind if workers choose to leave their jobs rather than comply with the new requirements. Health care facilities are already facing severe staff shortages.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rule requires vaccination for workers in 76,000 health facilities and home health care providers that get funding from the government health programs. An estimated 17 million workers are affected by the rule. The rules also allow for medical and religious exemptions.

While Georgia nursing home providers support vaccines, they worry the mandate could make staffing shortages even worse for some nursing centers, said Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Health Care Association, which represents long-term care providers across the state.

Marshall said the percentages of vaccinated or partially vaccinated nursing home workers has improved to about three-fourths now having at least one shot. Some of the state’s large nursing home chains already have vaccine mandates for their workers. Marshall said meeting the requirement could be especially hard for centers in rural areas.

“The majority of people are eventually accepting the vaccine but there are still areas of the state where the community acceptance is still really low, so that we are anticipating some worker shortfalls where we’re already critically thin in staffing,” he said.

ExploreCORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA/COMPLETE COVERAGE

In some buildings, just losing 1 or 2 workers would be a blow to the operation and its ability to accept new residents, he said.

Some healthcare employers have already begun their own vaccine programs. The most extensive health care systems in Georgia — Piedmont Healthcare, Wellstar Health System and Emory Healthcare — set Oct. 1 deadlines for COVID-19 vaccinations unless staff was granted a religious or medical exemption. None of the systems would comment on how many employees were granted exemptions.

Among healthcare employers who have not yet imposed a vaccine mandate are Northside Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said they were reviewing the CMS announcement and declined to comment any further.

Northside didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday.

Monty Veazey, president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals said they only lost “maybe 300 workers” statewide to either existing or coming vaccine mandates out of a workforce of about 150,000.

But the January mandate deadline isn’t here yet. “It is not the worst outcome,” Veazey said. “But nonetheless, as short as we are healthcare workers, period, it does dent our workforce.”

“I think we’re all thankful that our frontline workers have decided to get vaccinated,” said Veazey. “I think we’re relieved that the numbers are not as high as we anticipated.”

caption arrowCaption
Back in June, Canterbury Court, long-term care community celebrating having nearly 100% of their staff fully vaccinated. The vast majority of residents are also vaccinated. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Back in June, Canterbury Court, long-term care community celebrating having nearly 100% of their staff fully vaccinated. The vast majority of residents are also vaccinated. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

caption arrowCaption
Back in June, Canterbury Court, long-term care community celebrating having nearly 100% of their staff fully vaccinated. The vast majority of residents are also vaccinated. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

At Phoebe Putney Health System in Albany, credentialed providers, such as physicians and nurse practitioners, salaried managers and new employees are required to be vaccinated unless they have a waiver, but others can choose to undergo weekly testing. The testing option will likely end on Jan. 4.

“While we are still reviewing the new rule issued by CMS today, we will fully comply with it,” a spokesman for Phoebe Putney said in an e-mail.

The spokesperson said they wanted to review the rules, discuss their plans with staff before making any official comment.

Staff writer Carrie Teegardin contributed to this article