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The deadline has passed for NGHS employees to receive their first vaccine shot. Here’s how many have received a shot or an exemption
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

Less than a month ago, there were about 500 health system employees at Northeast Georgia Health System who were unvaccinated and had not received religious or medical exemptions from getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

 As of Tuesday, Feb. 15, there are fewer than 40 such employees, health system officials said. 

The federally mandated deadline to get the first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine was Monday, Feb. 14, and employees must be fully vaccinated by March 15, to comply with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid mandate. 

Health system leaders are working with the 40 employees who are still at risk of being terminated, said Sean Couch, spokesman for the health system. NGHS is Hall County’s largest employer with about 10,000 employees.

Unvaccinated employees could apply for medical or religious exemptions, and about 1,400 health system workers were approved for exemptions.

Despite the deadline, hospital officials said they will still have a few more days to speak with the 40 employees about their options. 

“The whole goal has been that we make sure that we spend the time really talking to employees and helping them understand what their options are,” Couch said. 

The health system does not expect any “serious operational impact,” from workers being suspended or terminated, Couch said. 

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 and Medicaid would be subject to its authority on this issue. 

In late January, more than 500 employees were still out of compliance with the mandate, but many have since applied for exemptions or been vaccinated.

Employees who were granted exemptions but remain unvaccinated will undergo daily health screenings. 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 will be tested for COVID-19 or be asked to quarantine, Couch said. 

The federal mandate also applies to vendors and contractors who work with hospitals like NGHS. 

“That level of enforcement and documentation … put an extra burden on health systems,” Couch said. “Because even if you don’t have to be the body that provides the exemptions for a vendor, a legal burden is on us that we have to keep some kind of documentation.” 

COVID-19 case numbers have fallen in the area in recent weeks, and the number of positive cases in the hospital have decreased since the peak of the omicron wave on Jan. 22. As of Feb. 15., there are 148 positive cases in the health system, down from 209 a week ago.