Friday is deadline for thousands of local hospital workers to get vaccinated

Here, a Wellstar Health System nurse receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot more than a year ago, in December 2020.  Wellstar is among the metro Atlanta health systems mandating that all staff be vaccinated by October 1, and some of its workers have protested.  The nurse in this photo was ICU nurse Amanda Earley, the system's first employee to receive the vaccine.  Wellstar Health System CEO Candice Saunders watched in the foreground as she got the shot. (Photo courtesy of Wellstar)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wellstar Health System

Combined ShapeCaption
Here, a Wellstar Health System nurse receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot more than a year ago, in December 2020. Wellstar is among the metro Atlanta health systems mandating that all staff be vaccinated by October 1, and some of its workers have protested. The nurse in this photo was ICU nurse Amanda Earley, the system's first employee to receive the vaccine. Wellstar Health System CEO Candice Saunders watched in the foreground as she got the shot. (Photo courtesy of Wellstar)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Wellstar Health System

Tens of thousands of Georgia health care workers must be vaccinated for COVID-19 by Friday or face losing their jobs.

Half of metro Atlanta’s hospital systems set an Oct. 1 deadline for employees to comply, and another local hospital system is in the process of extending its vaccine mandate to all staff. The moves come on the heels of the most grueling pandemic wave yet, as hospitals across the state were overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and pieces of the health care system collapsed as a result.

The mandates also come amid a critical shortage of health workers, especially nurses, and hospitals are losing some employees as a result of the vaccination requirements. But the hospitals that set the mandates say they had no other choice.

Piedmont Healthcare, which was the first metro Atlanta hospital system to require the shots, said that it was “committed to doing whatever we can to ensure a safe and quality experience for our employees and the communities we serve, which, in this case, meant enforcing a requirement that our workforce is vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Among Piedmont’s more than 23,000 employees, the number of full-time employees who will not be vaccinated by the deadline is “minimal,” and loss of those employees will have no impact on operations, the system said in a written statement.

Emory Healthcare, which has more than 24,000 workers, and Wellstar Health System, with about 25,000 workers, also set an Oct. 1 deadline after a small percentage of employees did not voluntarily get vaccinated.

The two systems did not respond to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the number or type of staff expected to leave because of the mandate.

All the systems said they would grant exemptions based on medical conditions or religious objections, but some employees have said that requests are being carefully reviewed and few exemptions have been granted.

Employee protests

Vaccine experts have expressed surprise that any health care workers would be among those who balk at the vaccine. Indeed, according to the American Medical Association, 96% of doctors have been vaccinated. Numbers decrease down the chain of health care workers, though.

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Diedre Lyjette Heard Wilkes, a Piedmont Newnan Hospital mammogram technician, was one of the first Georgia health care workers known to have died after contracting COVID-19. Wilkes, 42, was found dead in her Coweta County home with her 4-year-old son present.

Credit: Handout

Diedre Lyjette Heard Wilkes, a Piedmont Newnan Hospital mammogram technician, was one of the first Georgia health care workers known to have died after contracting COVID-19.  Wilkes, 42, was found dead in her Coweta County home with her 4-year-old son present.

Credit: Handout

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Diedre Lyjette Heard Wilkes, a Piedmont Newnan Hospital mammogram technician, was one of the first Georgia health care workers known to have died after contracting COVID-19. Wilkes, 42, was found dead in her Coweta County home with her 4-year-old son present.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Dr. Kimberly Manning, an Emory University physician who works at Grady Health System, has seen health care brought to its knees by the spread of COVID-19 from well-meaning people. Her own close relative in another state was in dire need of a hospital bed in recent weeks and couldn’t get one for too long. Those are consequences that justify a mandate, she said.

Still, Manning said she empathizes with those who have shunned the shots. “We all like autonomy,” she said. “But if the decision that you make can greatly impact other people, then that becomes something that isn’t just only about you.”

Manning helped start up a “no judgment zone” information desk at Grady for people to ask about the vaccine, and she said it has helped convert many workers who had hesitated.

Grady, which has about 7,200 workers, is requiring doctors, management-level staff and vendors to be vaccinated by Friday. As of Monday, 95% of Grady staff doctors and leaders have been vaccinated, officials said.

Grady will soon be setting a deadline for other workers to get the shots, too.

“With the significant increase in COVID cases, we have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for our employees, medical staff, patients, and the community,” Grady said in a recent newsletter to employees.

Wellstar has seen protests by employees objecting to the vaccine mandate. One technician made headlines by going on social media to compare the mandate to the Nazi Holocaust. Shortly afterward Wellstar said she was no longer employed there.

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Protestors picket Wellstar Health System over vaccination policies

Protestors picket Wellstar Health System over vaccination policies

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Protestors picket Wellstar Health System over vaccination policies

Many of those opposed to the vaccine just want time, said Beth Stein, a maternity nurse from Cartersville with 22 years’ experience at Wellstar.

She has had her first shot and intends to get her second, because her daughters asked her to, she said. Still, she said, “I am absolutely sick over the mandate” even though she estimates half of her colleagues have been infected with the coronavirus.

Stein said she knows of six employees who are leaving because of the mandate, including some with long experience. Because employees have gone above and beyond for the hospital and patients during the pandemic, she said she believes they are owed the autonomy to make their own decisions.

But others point to the horrendous toll that the pandemic continues to take in Georgia, with September the deadliest month so far. While personal protective equipment and other infection-control measures may help limit spread of the coronavirus, those precautions haven’t been enough to spare even health care workers.

Wellstar told the AJC that vaccination is the best protection available against the virus.

Holdout hospitals

Northside Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have no vaccine mandate at the moment but instead have offered bonuses to employees who get vaccinated

CHOA said in a written statement that it could not afford to institute a mandate for all those who come in contact with patients because of the “critical pediatric nursing shortage coupled with dramatically increased volumes” of patients to care for.

CHOA, with more than 11,000 employees, does have a vaccination mandate for physicians on its staff, the statement says.

Lee Echols, a vice president at Northside, said in a written statement that 80% of Northside’s 24,000 workers have been vaccinated, but he did not say how many of those are involved in face-to-face care with patients, as opposed to executives or other groups of workers.

As the last adult hospital system in metro Atlanta without a vaccine mandate, that may give Northside an advantage in hiring those unhappy with mandates elsewhere.

But any advantage will be temporary.

In September, the Biden administration announced that staff of health care facilities that receive federal health reimbursements — virtually all hospitals — will have to be vaccinated.

“There is no question that staff...who remain unvaccinated pose both direct and indirect threats to patient safety and population health,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in announcing the federal requirement.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is writing rules for the mandate, and a draft is expected to be issued in October.