Thursday, 23 September 2021 09:55

N.C. hospital suspends hundreds of healthcare workers without pay amid vaccine mandate

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A woman protests mandatory vaccinations at Duke Hospital in August. A woman protests mandatory vaccinations at Duke Hospital in August. Maya Reagan - Carolina Journal

Winston-Salem based Novant Health has suspended more than 300 employees effective this week for not getting a COVID-19 vaccine. According to a press release from the hospital system, those who have not either had one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine or a first dose of Moderna or Pfizer will not be allowed to report to work. Those with one dose will have until Oct. 15 to get the second one.


The policy does not apply to those who have gotten a medial or religious exemption. Those with an exemption face weekly COVID-19 testing and must wear a N95 mask, PPE, and eyewear protection when on Novant premises.

The health system says that as a result 375 people will be suspended without pay and if they do not comply within five days they will be terminated from employment. There are 35,000 staff members across the system's 15 hospitals, 800 clinics and outpatient facilities.

"These added safety measures are in place to ensure patient and team member safety and preserve staffing levels," Novant Health stated in a press release.

In an emailed response to questions from Carolina Journal, Novant Health's communications director Megan Rivers wrote that the mandate also applies to Novant's remote employees and those employees who are not patient-facing.

North Carolina is an "at will" employment state and there is not currently a law against a company requiring a vaccine for employment.

In a Tweet Wednesday Dr. Martin Kulldorff, infectious disease expert at Harvard Medical School, tweeted:

To best protect frail patients, smart hospitals and nursing homes would hire staff who have already had Covid, as they have stronger longer lasting immunity than the vaccinated. https://t.co/d14kTPnCWk

— Martin Kulldorff (@MartinKulldorff) September 22, 2021

Still, Atrium Health, also in North Carolina, is giving employees, medical students, contractors, and remote workers until Oct. 31, 2021 to have completed the two-dose vaccine, unless they have an approved exemption. That includes students from Concord's Cabarrus College of Health Sciences who are studying to enter the healthcare workforce and are earning their practical experience there.

"Students who do not follow this policy will be assessed a late fee and face consequences (suspension from class/lab/clinical/fieldwork) up to and including dismissal from the college," a vaccine information page on their website reads.

One of the issues voiced by hospitals particularly in the Charlotte area, is not the actual bed or space to treat the sick, but rather the needs for a larger healthcare labor force to tend to them.

"How far we have fallen in a year, from openly celebrated them as heroes on the front lines to now demanding their jobs," said Jon Sanders, senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation. "Last year many of them contracted the virus in the course of their work and have recovered and now have an immunity that’s many levels greater than vaccine-induced immunity. This policy is extraordinarily short-sighted, it is creating unnecessary suffering for health professionals for no good reason, and it also will endanger North Carolinians in the coming days who are unfortunate enough to suffer any kind of medical emergency."

Currently, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 Dashboard indicates that there are 16,118 hospital beds in use across the state, 5,011 beds that are unstaffed or unreported, and 4,337 hospital beds that are empty.

"With the capacity to add beds comes the need for additional clinical care teams to support them," Novant spokeswoman Kristen Barnhardt told N.C. Health News in January." We continue to monitor the data closely and stand ready to activate additional surge planning scenarios from staffing contingency to the utilization of additional space on our campuses.”

In August, a group of Atrium employees demonstrated against the vaccine policy in Charlotte's Freedom Park.

"If our patients get to choose, then we should also be allowed to choose," Chelsea Hoyle, an ER nurse for Atrium Health, told Spectrum News at the protest.

"Atrium Health has a long history of protecting the health of our patients, our teammates and the communities we serve," Atrium Health stated in a media release. "With the new and more contagious variants now causing hospitalizations to rise across our region, we are requiring teammates to be vaccinated against the virus – to avoid catching or spreading it to others in our hospitals or other clinical environments."

UAB hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the state's largest employers, recently rescinded their vaccine mandate because of pushback from staff. The hospital statement notes they are including $400 "incentive" payments to staff who receive the vaccine while the facility waits on further federal guidelines.

The hopsital mandates follow President Joe Biden's announcement on September 9, 2021 that hospitals receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding will be required to institute a vaccine mandate. It will be enforced through the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, indicating that facilities risk losing those reimbursements for non-compliance.

Reaching beyond healthcare settings, Biden has also directed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce a vaccine mandate on any company with 100 or more employees, blaming the disappointing August job numbers on increased positive cases of coronavirus. In Biden's order, private companies would be penalized if workers do not get the COVID-19 vaccine or submit to weekly COVID testing.

"OSHA will issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to implement this requirement," the White House wrote the announcement. "This requirement will impact over 80 million workers in private sector businesses with 100+ employees."

The U.S. GDP is already expected to be down $70 million in 2021. Given that there are about 74 million Americans who are eligible for a vaccine, but have chosen not to get it, economists are wary of how a vaccine mandate for private companies might impact unemployment rates and overall GDP during a fragile economic recovery. In late August, Goldman Sachs was predicting 5.5% GDP growth, but since the federal mandate announcement has dropped their prediction to just 3.5%.  Earlier this week in Australia, rebellion over such mandates turned violent as construction workers clashed with police because worksites were shutdown for two weeks.