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EMC workers faced with decision in response to vaccine mandate

Hospital workers across the country, including those at Emanuel’s own local healthcare facility, will soon be required to become compliant with President Joe Biden’s vaccination mandate.

On Thursday, November 4, the Biden administration announced employees who work at companies with 100 or more persons on the payroll to be fully vaccinated by December 4, 2021. Hospitals who do not comply will lose funding from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. In addition, these facilities stand to lose their CMS accreditation.

Damien Scott is CEO of Emanuel Medical Center, and he sat down with The Chronicle for an interview last Friday. He recognized at that time this is a controversial issue, calling it the “largest ordeal” dealt to him in his career thus far even after two years of fighting coronavirus with his staff. Even so, he admitted EMC will comply with the federal mandate—but the biggest takeaway is the local hospital plans to equip its servants with the best possible attempt at an exemption as entitled to by the language in President Biden’s outline.

According to the federal mandate, these exemptions fall into one of two categories: medical and religious. However, every facility must establish its own process for allowing these, and that is something Emanuel Medical has begun working with its parent company, ER Hospitals, to put together.

On Friday, Scott provided insightful data about what exactly EMC has at risk in terms of staffing. There are approximately 415 healthcare workers of various sorts on the current roster. Only 51 percent of employees and contractors were vaccinated as of the time of Friday’s meeting.

The new mandate doesn’t specify which vaccination workers receive. Available right now are the Johnson & Johnson, a one-shot dose, and the Pfizer and the Moderna, both of which require two shots.

By law, the remaining 49 percent at EMC have to receive at least one dose prior to December 4—or they must have received approval on their exemption application. Strength of antibodies, even through verified tests, is not taken into account by the mandate.

The worst case scenario for EMC will see them lose about half of their staff today. This is in addition to the numerous state agency nurses assigned here earlier this year to assist with COVID who will be leaving at the end of this month.

These heavy decisions and monumental risk come with a deadline exactly a month from which the mandate was sent down by President Biden, and Scott says that in itself is unusual. In addition, the process by which hospitals have to abide is different with this mandate as well compared to others sent down from the federal level in the past.

Typically, a mandate is sent down for review by the facility, then a comment period opens for questions and concerns with implementation happening as the last step. With the COVID vaccination mandate, however, the process has been reversed. Facilities have been given the mandate, will have to implement it, then the comment period will open.

So far, 10 states have filed appeals. Georgia is not one of them.

Looking to the future, Scott anticipates this mandate will be blocked, a percentage of people will become vaccinated, another percentage will apply for exemption, and another group will walk away from healthcare altogether.

In the here and now, however, it’s not so cut and dry. He says he sees the divide despite, from a professional standpoint, having done everything possible to raise awareness and promote the vaccine.

Emanuel County as a whole is only 35 percent vaccinated (according to data on Friday). Right now, the overall trend is lulling, but experts predict another surge in cases to occur in December.

“I am pro vaccine. My mother died just two weeks before the vaccine became available. We’ve done videos, talked in the community, and spent time and money promoting it because what we’ve seen says the vaccine works. For example, the majority of patients hospitalized with COVID weren’t vaccinated. Those who were vaccinated for coronavirus and wound up in the hospital anyway had significantly shorter stays. Still, a large part of our community have decided they don’t want the vaccine,” Scott said. “On one side, I can see where people feel like our healthcare workers should be vaccinated. On the other side, I can see where others feel like this is a choice. There is data on both sides to support those strong arguments. Still, from a hospital standpoint, if this is what the federal government says we have to do to keep our accreditation and funding, we have to do it.”

When asked to describe the overall morale right now at the hospital, Scott says his folks are anxious—and understandably so. EMC has already held a public forum for its workers and plans to hold another once the procedures have been finalized for presentation.

Some staff members have been clear about their stance; according to Scott, some want a safe place like their hospital to be made even safer by a 100 percent vaccination status of workers while others want their medical liberties prioritized, allowing them to make a decision like this on their own. Scott went on to say that he has had multiple conversations with workers and members of the public alike since the news of the mandate broke.

However, one positive he sees is that his staff, for the majority, is vaccinated in a predominantly unvaccinated community.

Additionally, Emanuel Medical hasn’t lost a single worker to COVID, and whatever spread of coronavirus that took place among workers since the virus first made it here—to the best of the hospital’s tracing efforts—didn’t happen because of exposure at work. Those two things mean the healthcare workers here are doing their jobs well.

Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, Scott mentioned the hospital’s accolades as of late. EMC has received 4- and 5-star ratings from CMS since he arrived seven years ago, and Georgia Trend Magazine named the local facility the state’s top medium-sized hospital in late 2020. This translates to a clear message that the workers here are deeply committed to regulations, a pattern that will hopefully continue as the mandate effective date speeds toward hospitals across the country.

“I want people to get vaccinated, no question about it. At this point, I’m not sure why people aren’t getting vaccinated. If you’re scared of needles, just do it. But if you have a deep rel