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More than 500 employees at NGHS face termination for refusing COVID vaccine
Elizabeth Larkins.jpg
Elizabeth Larkins, the director of critical care at Gainesville's Northeast Georgia Medical Center, looks away while receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. She was one of seven frontline health care workers to receive a dose Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. - photo by Nick Watson

More than 500 employees at Northeast Georgia Health System could be terminated on Feb. 14 for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Hospital officials said earlier this week they continue to talk with the holdouts.

“Thankfully, the courts staying the CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid) requirement back in December gave our employees more time to ask questions and submit exemption requests,” Laura Hays, executive director of human resource systems, wrote in a statement to The Times. “Between the percentage of our employees who are fully vaccinated rising to almost 80% and the exemptions that have been granted, we know today that 95% of our workforce is staying intact – and we’re talking with the remaining 5% before the first CMS deadline to help them make decisions that are right for them.”

Northeast Georgia Health System has more than 10,000 employees. A breakdown of what type  of jobs the unvaccinated have within the hospital system was not available at the time of publication.

The deadline comes following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that most medical workers would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The initial deadline for most medical workers in the U.S. to be vaccinated against COVID-19 was in early December, but a decision from the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had temporarily blocked the case in some states, including Georgia. 

On Jan. 13, the Supreme Court upheld the Biden Administration’s mandate, ruling that medical workers governed by Centers for Medicare & Medicaid would be subject to its authority on this issue. 

The unsigned opinion stated, “such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have.”

About 900 NGHS workers applied for either medical or religious exemptions before the December deadline, and as of Friday, Jan. 21, about 1,500 health system employees had received exemptions. 

All employees without an approved exemption must have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Feb. 14 and be fully vaccinated by March 15. The latest data provided by the health system shows that about 78% of all employees are fully vaccinated, and 89% of medical providers are vaccinated. This still leaves some employees in limbo and at risk of losing their jobs, but health system officials said they were confident that a high percentage of their workforce would remain.

Employees who are granted an exemption from getting vaccinated and remain on staff will be required to report daily health screenings after the vaccine deadline date, Hays wrote. They will log in to an online system at the start of each shift and indicate whether they have any COVID-19 symptoms. If they report they have symptoms, then they may be required to go to the health system’s employee health team for further assessment and/or testing, she wrote. 

“While the decisions have been difficult for some, we’re optimistic that we won’t see any major negative impact on staffing – though we continue to work through the same nursing shortage as the rest of the state and nation,” Hays wrote. 

Northside Hospital, which also has hospitals in the area, did not respond to a request for comment. 

NGHS has struggled to find enough full time nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as almost all other hospitals in the state and many around the country. In the past year, the health system has started offering signing bonuses and significantly raised starting salaries to attract nurses. In August, the health system reported it was short about 500 nurses, and by December it still needed to fill about 400 positions. 

COVID-19 cases remain high with the omicron variant causing a higher peak of COVID-19 positive patients in the health system than during the delta wave, with 341 such patients in care on Jan. 17. 

As of Wednesday, Jan. 26, there were 313 COVID-19 positive patients in care. About 69% of patients in critical care are unvaccinated, according to health system data. 

The Associated Press contributed to this article.