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East Tennessee hospitals grapple with plan for staff vaccine mandate

Federal rules mean most hospital and nursing home staff will have to be fully vaccinated by early January.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — East Tennessee hospitals are examining how to implement a federal coronavirus vaccine mandate that requires staff to receive their first dose by early December. 

The rules, codified last week by the Biden administration, apply to hospitals, nursing homes and home health care agencies. It's different from the OSHA requirements for businesses with more than 100 employees—the healthcare worker mandate comes through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). 

"It’s a condition of participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, so it has a very big financial implication," said UT School of Nursing Professor Carole Myers. "There’s real bite in these mandates."

Myers said healthcare workers typically have a higher rate of vaccination than the general population, but some East Tennessee hospitals report significant minorities of employees without the shot.

East Tennessee Children's Hospital said one in five workers is not vaccinated. This summer, Blount Memorial Hospital said 40 percent of its workers were not vaccinated. 

Myers said there may be some staff members who leave because of the mandate, possibly exacerbating nurse staffing shortages already crunching local hospitals. 

"I think this is a possibility that we’re going to have to live with," she said. But "vaccinated workers are safer for our patients, safer for themselves. I think it’s an ethical obligation for healthcare workers." 

In a statement, a Tennova Healthcare spokesperson said "We are reviewing the rule released by CMS last week. Our hospitals and caregiving teams will work to comply with the requirement." 

She said the hospital system began routine testing for unvaccinated staff in September and is committed to maintaining a safe environment for patients. 

Spokespeople for Blount Memorial Hospital, UT Medical Center and Covenant Health said their hospitals did not have information to provide the public regarding the vaccine mandate at this time. A spokesperson for East Tennessee Children's Hospital added that its leadership team is currently discussing the mandate. 

Spokespeople for Sweetwater Hospital and Cherokee Health, which would also be covered by the mandate, did not respond to requests for comment. 

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health declined to comment because the mandates are under litigation. A spokesperson for the Knox County Health Department said it is in discussion with the county's law department about the implications of the mandate. 

The federal mandate would apply to hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies among others, Myers said. She said assisted living facilities and physicians' offices are not covered by this mandate. 

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