JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Sixty-three Ballad Health System employees are currently suspended for failing to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or for requesting an exemption, under a federal mandate.
Of those 63, 45 work in clinical roles with patients at the system’s largest tertiary care hospitals Johnson City Medical Center, Bristol Regional Medical Center and Holston Valley Medical Center, Ballad CEO Alan Levine said Wednesday during of a press briefing.
“They are certainly all welcome to come back if they comply with the vaccination requirement. It’s their choice,” Levine said. “We worked very hard to discuss with everyone what the mandate was. We waived the delay when the Supreme Court was considering this case. We stopped the mandate during this process. When the Supreme Court ruled, at that time, it was clear that we had to comply with the mandate.
Vaccination is required by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and applies to every employee or contract worker of every health care facility that receives funding from either federal insurance program.
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“Losing 45 caregivers – some are nurses, some are LPNs, some are CNAs [certified nursing assistants] – It’s not good. Every day, our nurse managers work hard to make sure they can fill those shifts,” Levine said. “I am very happy to see that there were only 63 compared to where we were. When we were talking about 1,000, we were talking about disaster. Sixty-three can be managed, but it is difficult to find people right now, so we’re doing things like signing bonuses to try to hire people now while investing in the pipeline.
The suspensions come as the national health care industry faces its worst employee shortage in decades, Levine said.
“We have 600 nursing positions open based on normal operations. When you’re dealing with an increase in COVID volume, which we always have, the operating deficit is actually over 600. We’ve filled that with contract labor – over 400 contract nurses – we have people working overtime. People are trying to meet the needs,” Levine said.
Asked about his expectations for what those 63 might do, Levine declined to speculate.
“We will work with them to encourage them to get vaccinated, and I hope they will. We would certainly welcome them if they choose to get vaccinated, or they can always apply for the exemptions as well, if they have religious or medical reasons,” he said.
Anyone who chooses not to get vaccinated or resign after 90 days would then be fired for violating the policy, Levine said, adding that he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
About 450 employees received the first dose of the vaccine by the original deadline and must then take the second dose by March 11.
“I think we’ve done everything we can to be transparent with our team members and the public so they know what we’re dealing with. I salute the team members who chose to get vaccinated,” Levine said.
Of Ballad’s approximately 13,800 employees and related workers, more than 86% are fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. On the other hand, the regional average of fully vaccinated residents remains below 50%.
According to chief operating officer Eric Deaton, another 1,700 have been approved for medical or religious exemptions while 250 are deferred because they have COVID-19 and cannot yet receive a vaccine.
“If you exclude people with exemptions, exclude deferrals and those who chose not to take the vaccine, we are 86% vaccinated, which is remarkable,” Deaton said. “Just a few months ago we were in the mid-60s. We have made a lot of progress and our frontline team members [and] the front-line managers have really looked into this, educated people and helped them understand why it’s important for us to do this.
With its COVID count of inpatients dwindling, the health system announced on Wednesday that it was withdrawing from crisis staffing, Deaton said. As part of the crisis staffing plan, Ballad employees positive for COVID but asymptomatic were to come into work.
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