Major NC hospital systems announce vaccine requirement for employees

In this Feb. 24, 2021 file photo, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. Most of North Carolina’s Medicaid recipients have now moved over to managed care. Starting Thursday, July 1 five statewide or regional health plans are handling care for roughly 1.6 million consumers covered by government health programs for poor children, older adults and others. “It’s the biggest change to our program in its history,” said Cohen, whose agency awarded the five-year plan contracts — expected to cost $6 billion annually — and carries out the law. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP, File)

RALEIGH — After a July 22 announcement by the North Carolina Healthcare Association (NCHA) encouraging their 130-member health providers to mandate vaccines for their employees, five major hospital systems — Atrium Health, Cone Health, Duke University Health System, Novant Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health — announced their intention to follow this guidance.

Certain campuses of UNC Health announced they would follow suit as well. Those campuses are UNC Medical Center, UNC Rex, UNC Johnston, UNC Chatham, UNC Rockingham and UNC Southeastern.

“North Carolina’s hospitals and health systems exist to improve and protect the health of our communities, which is why they place patient, visitor and team member health and safety at the heart of the care they provide,” the NCHA statement said. “In keeping with that goal, the North Carolina Healthcare Association strongly supports hospital and health system policies that require all hospital employees and clinical team members to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Mandy K. Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, released a statement later that day applauding the move by these major players in the state’s health care.

“Thank you to the North Carolina Healthcare Association, and the health systems that are leading the way requiring vaccination for employees, for taking action to protect the health care workforce, their patients, our communities and the state,” Cohen said. “Vaccinations are our way out of the pandemic. Don’t wait to vaccinate.”

In the NCHA announcement, they cited statistics from Cohen’s DHHS, saying vaccination was vital because “nearly 99% of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths during May and June were among people not fully vaccinated.”

Rep. Wayne Sasser (R-Stanly), who chairs the state’s House Health Committee and House Health Appropriations Committee, said on the announcements, “To be honest with you, I’m a little bit surprised, and probably disappointed.”

Hospitals have long required multiple vaccinations to secure employment, but Sasser said the fact that this was retroactively imposed on existing employees and that the COVID vaccines are only available due to an “emergency-use authorization” has caused a lot of anger. He said it seemed like “a gray area” legally to require employees to take a vaccine that hasn’t received full FDA approval.

“Statewide, we’re just getting blown up,” Sasser said on legislators receiving emails from health care workers upset with the new vaccine requirements. “A lot of the employees kind of feel like they’ve been mistreated because they stuck by the hospitals when there wasn’t any guarantee that they were going to survive.”

He also said many of those writing feel like they were not able to give input on the decision “and then just all of a sudden this just shows up and this is the way it is. There are some people that are not happy.”

NCHA did say it recognizes health providers may not immediately adopt this guidance because of their unique local conditions and “encourages each to determine the appropriate time to implement a requirement.”

The NC Chamber, a statewide organization supporting North Carolina’s businesses, released a statement also lending support to the NCHA and hospitals.

“The well-being of North Carolina’s workers, customers, and communities remains the top priority for job creators as we work to relaunch our economy,” said Gary Salamido, president and CEO of the NC Chamber. “To this end, it is vital that we protect our health care heroes and vulnerable patient populations from contracting and spreading COVID-19 in health care settings. The NC Chamber supports the North Carolina Healthcare Association’s recommendations that our hospitals and health care systems implement policies that in their best judgment ensure all hospital employees and clinical team members are protected against the virus.”

State law mandates exemptions for medical and religious reasons, and hospital systems indicated they would review exemption requests on a case-by-case basis.

The date by which employees will have to be fully vaccinated differs by institutions: Atrium Health, which operates in the Charlotte area, is requiring vaccination by Oct. 31; Cone Health, which operates in the Triad, by Oct. 1; Duke Health, which operates in the Triangle area, by Sept. 21; Novant, which operates in the Triangle and Triad, by Sept. 15; UNC Health, which operates in the Triangle and southern and eastern parts of the state, by Sept. 21; and Wake Forest Baptist Health, which operates in the Triad, by Oct. 31.

“Our state’s health systems and hospitals have seen first-hand how debilitating and deadly this disease can be,” the NCHA statement concludes. “Protecting patients, visitors and healthcare personnel from COVID-19 continues to be of paramount importance. Hospital and health system employee vaccination against COVID-19 is vital to safely care for patients by protecting them from infection, and to mitigate the spread of the virus within healthcare facilities and among clinicians, patients and their families and friends.”

Sasser said he wasn’t sure if the legislature was going to respond with any bill reining in mandatory vaccines, but he said it would certainly be part of conversations this week for the House Republican Caucus.

“To make it retroactive on the people who have looked after all the sick COVID patients up to this point, I’m a little disappointed,” Sasser said. “And what the legislature is going to do, I don’t have any idea.”