Local hospitals begin enforcing medical worker vaccine mandates

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Hospital systems across Georgia are taking steps to meet a new deadline for health care workers to be vaccinated, bracing for the possibility of losing workers who won’t get the shots or don’t get an exemption.

By Monday, health care workers in 24 states including Georgia were required to have received their first vaccine dose or to have requested a medical or religious exemption. Under the federal vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, the final deadline to be vaccinated or possibly be fired is March 15.

Many Georgia health care facilities had already put a vaccine requirement in place for workers. All metro Atlanta hospital systems except Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Northside began instituting vaccination mandates last year, even before a Supreme Court decision was made upholding the federal vaccination mandate.

“The concern is, as we all knew, if indeed we’re forced into a mandate, people will start leaving and we’ll be double short of the technicians that we need, and then we can have all sorts of problems — closures or reduction of access, et cetera... And the response has been that many of the hospitals in that situation resorted to exemptions,” said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of Hometown Health and a lobbyist for smaller and rural hospitals.

“By and large, the religious exemption has been the most favorable approach taken by people who want to continue the work and CEOs who want them to continue to work and continue to provide the service,” Lewis said.

The mandate has already caused some hospitals in Georgia to lose workers who refuse to take the vaccine, just as worker shortages resulting from the pandemic have reached a critical level due to the latest coronavirus surge.

Hospitals have generally been tight-lipped about the number of health care workers vaccinated, and the number of health care workers obtaining exemptions.

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The federal government has extended the COVID-19 vaccination deadline for health care workers in states, including Georgia, where the rule was paused during litigation. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to proceed with the directive in states that challenged the rule. Enforcement won’t begin immediately.

If a hospital doesn’t comply on time, it’s unlikely the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would immediately lower the hammer and revoke their participation in Medicare and Medicaid insurance, according to the guidance CMS issued.

“CMS’s goal is to bring health care facilities into compliance,” the federal agency said.

The mandate applies to a wide range of health care settings, covering doctors, nurses, technicians, aides, hospital volunteers, nursing homes, home-health agencies and other providers that receive funding through Medicare or Medicaid programs.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Several of the most extensive health care systems in Georgia including Piedmont Healthcare and Emory Healthcare set their vaccine requirements to take effect in early October 2021. Grady Memorial Hospital’s and Wellstar Health System’s took effect Nov. 1.

A spokeswoman for Grady said 99% of hospital staff are vaccinated. Other hospitals reported “high” levels but didn’t reveal specifics. Large hospital systems can employ several thousand workers, so even a success rate of 90% could leave hundreds of workers unvaccinated.

Scott Steiner, President & CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System in southwest Georgia, said fewer than 30 Phoebe employees were listed as non-compliant. After being told the deadline to lose their jobs had arrived, several submitted proof of vaccination.

“We continue to work with the small fraction who have not,” Steiner said. “We anticipate the employment status of only a handful of our employees will be affected by the federal mandate.” He said the hospital system invested significant time and resources to get staff vaccinated.

A spokesman for Northside Hospital said, “Those who remain unvaccinated know where they stand, and what they must now do to be in compliance.”

According to an e-mail, Northside said it has provided vaccine clinics, education efforts, and financial incentives to encourage vaccination. The hospital said its employee vaccination rates are higher than the U.S. average for health care workers, but they didn’t provide specifics.