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East TN Children's CEO says hospital didn't want to lose employees with vaccine mandate

New federal guidelines said hospital and nursing employees must be fully vaccinated by January 4, 2022. An injunction from a judge paused that requirement.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — UPDATE

The CEO of East Tennessee Children's Hospital said the hospital had no choice but to follow a federal rule mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for staff but decided not to continue the mandate after a federal judge's injunction.

"Losing any team member over this mandate is not something that we want to see," said Matt Schaefer, the president of the hosptial.

East Tennessee Children's joined every other major East Tennessee hospital group in pausing its requirement staff to start the vaccination process by this weekend. A federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction blocking a federal vaccination requirement for healthcare workers across the U.S. earlier this week. 

The hospitals had little choice but to follow the rule while it was in place, Schaefer said. If they did not, they risked losing insurance reimbursement for Medicare and Tenncare patients — which Schaefer said made up approximately 110,000 of his hospital's clients. 

"Funding for the hospital from 60 percent of patients that we serve would disappear overnight," he said. 

Even though vaccines are not mandatory for staff, Schaefer said about 90 percent of the team at East Tennessee Children's Hospital has received the inoculation. He urged those who had not to speak to their doctor and consider it. 

"Mandate or no mandate, that message hasn't changed," he said. 

PREVIOUS STORY

After a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction blocking a federal vaccination requirement for healthcare workers across the U.S., several East Tennessee healthcare facilities said they would pause their plans to follow the federal requirement.

The University of Tennessee Medical Center said Thursday it has suspended its vaccine requirement for staff following the federal injunction. UTMC said a majority of its staff had been vaccinated and it continues to encourage vaccinations.

Covenant Health said they would pause its enforcement of the vaccine requirement, and would also pause its requirement for employees to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. They also said that 90 percent of employees and medical staff have already received the vaccine.

The East Tennessee Children's Hospital said it is pausing its vaccination requirement for staff, too. 

"We believe our ability to care for patients is extremely critical to the families we serve and losing any team member over this mandate is not something we want to see," said East Tennessee Children's Hospital President and CEO Matt Schaefer on the decision. 

He encouraged anyone who hasn't been vaccinated to speak to a health care provider. "Mandate or no mandate, that message is the same."

Blount Memorial Hospital has also suspended its vaccine requirements for staff.

Tennova also said that staff at its healthcare facilities would not be required to get the vaccine, but they still encourage staff to get it. Part of their statement is below:

Our hospital remains committed to maintaining a safe environment for our patients and caregivers which includes following CDC guidelines for masking of all providers, patients and visitors and routine testing for any unvaccinated staff members. Given the injunction, our hospital has paused the requirement that unvaccinated employees initiate the COVID-19 vaccine series by December 5, 2021 and be fully vaccinated by January 4, 2022 or have a religious or medical exemption in place as mandated by CMS.

Tennova also said most of its staff have already been vaccinated against COVID-19.

A federal judge in Louisiana issued the injunction on Tuesday after 14 states brought a lawsuit against it. The injunction applies nationwide, except for ten states that are part of a separate order.

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PREVIOUS: Covenant Health became the first major East Tennessee hospital chain to mandate staff get COVID-19 vaccines Nov. 17, after a federal order set a January 4 deadline for hospital staff to be fully vaccinated. On Thursday, other hospitals in the Knoxville area said they planned to follow the mandate, too.

Blount Memorial Hospital, Covenant Health, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, Sweetwater Hospital Association, Tennova and The University of Tennessee Medical Center said they planned to follow the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Tennova was not included in the statement.

"All of our dedicated team members are important to us, and like hospitals across the country, we have faced staffing challenges created by the pandemic," the statement says. "However, team members must be in compliance with the vaccine deadlines in order to continue working at our facilities."

Tennova previously released a separate statement about the vaccine mandate. They said they are still reviewing the mandate, but also said they will work to comply with the requirement. On Nov. 17, they said they would employees, physicians and volunteers in hospitals and facilities that follow Medicare regulations would need to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 5.

An email sent to Covenant Health staff Wednesday afternoon — and obtained by 10News — said the hospital had "no choice but to comply" with the federal order from the Biden administration. If the hospital did not institute a mandate, it risked losing federal funding for Medicare patients.

According to the letter, more than 55 percent of patients at the hospital rely on Medicare. So, officials said they do not have much of a choice but to follow federal requirements.

Employees who do not get vaccinated or obtain religious or medical exemptions will be placed on administrative leave, the email said. If they still do not get vaccinated, they will be "designated as having voluntarily resigned," the email said. 

The Covenant email to staff said more than 70 percent of the hospital group's workforce is already fully vaccinated. 

"You know better than anyone that the needs of our patients and communities have been especially significant throughout the course of the pandemic," Covenant CEO Jim VanderSteeg wrote to employees. "It is because of your dedication and incredible courage that I'm confident we will rise to the occasion once again." 

The federal mandate requires staff in medical facilities to get their first dose of the vaccine or get a one-dose vaccine by December 5 and to get fully vaccinated by January 4. Covenant Health said it would organize a series of vaccine clinics.

The vaccination requirement applies to all Covenant employees — including those who work off-site and at medical office buildings. Covenant said routine testing is not a substitute for vaccination under the federal mandate. The company employs more than 10,000 people across the state.

The East Tennessee Children's Hospital said that 80% of its staff were already employed, and said that it employs around 2,040 people. According to data, around 408 people will need to get vaccinated before the deadline.

The Sweetwater Hospital Association employs 738 people, and Blount Memorial Hospital employs 2,600 people. UT Medical Center said it had 3,747 working for it in 2019.

Tennova employs 9,800 people. However, they were not included in the original joint statement among other East Tennessee hospital systems. They later announced workers would need to get the vaccine.

Clinical, non-clinical and medical staff, as well as students, volunteers, contracted employees and vendors are also required to follow the mandate, according to the joint statement released by Knoxville hospitals.

WBIR also reached out to Summit Medical Group, which does not fall under the federal hospital mandate but operates several physicians' offices that would be under OSHA's COVID-19 vaccine emergency temporary standard -- should that ETS survive court challenges currently blocking it from being implemented.

Summit Medical said it is remaining in compliance with the OSHA ETS, which mandates employees who aren't vaccinated to be tested for COVID-19 weekly. It said it is also requiring unvaccinated employees to wear masks starting December 6, 2021:  

"In compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) latest emergency temporary standard (ETS), Summit Medical Group will ensure all unvaccinated employees working in person begin wearing masks by Dec. 6, 2021, and provide a negative COVID-19 test on a weekly basis beginning Jan. 4, 2022. Summit employees wishing to receive the vaccine prior to the deadline will be able to receive the vaccination at most Summit Medical Group locations."

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