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N.C. hospital system fires about 175 workers in one of the largest-ever mass terminations due to a vaccine mandate

A health-care worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to a staff member of the Clarendon School District at Manning High School in Manning, S.C., on March 12. (Micah Green/Bloomberg News)

A North Carolina-based hospital system announced Monday that roughly 175 unvaccinated employees were fired for failing to comply with the organization’s mandatory coronavirus vaccination policy, the latest in a series of health-care dismissals over coronavirus immunization.

Novant Health said last week that 375 unvaccinated workers — across 15 hospitals and 800 clinics — had been suspended for not getting immunized. Unvaccinated employees were given five days to comply.

Novant Health spokeswoman Megan Rivers told The Washington Post that more than 99 percent of the system’s roughly 35,000 employees have followed the mandatory vaccination program. She said in a statement that Novant Health was “thrilled” those who chose to be vaccinated have given patients and visitors “better protection against COVID-19 regardless of where they are in our health system.”

Rivers tweeted that almost 200 of the suspended workers, including those who had submitted approved exemptions, received their first dose by Friday. The hospital confirmed that the rest of the suspended employees who did not comply were fired, although the exact number of those dismissed was not specified.

“We stand by our decision to make the vaccine mandatory as we have a responsibility to protect our patients, visitors and team members, regardless of where they are in our health system,” Novant Health said in a statement. “We couldn’t be prouder of our team members who made the choice to receive the covid-19 vaccine and remain part of our team at Novant Health.”

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The mass termination of unvaccinated hospital system employees is among the largest of its kind to date. More than 150 health-care workers who did not comply with a vaccine mandate at Houston Methodist — one of the first health systems to require the coronavirus shots — were fired or resigned in June after a federal judge upheld the policy. ChristianaCare, a Delaware health system, announced this week that 150 employees were fired for not adhering to its vaccine mandate.

The move by the Winston-Salem-based system comes as some health-care workers continue to push back on employers’ vaccine mandates after President Biden announced sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandates this month. The president ordered all businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be immunized or face weekly testing, noting that he would also require most health-care facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to vaccinate their employees.

Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Gypsyamber D'Souza explains how the U.S. can reach coronavirus herd immunity and what happens if that goal is missed. (Video: Brian Monroe, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

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But as hospitals have been pushed to their limits in recent months, the opposition from some health-care workers toward vaccination policies have further complicated an already difficult situation for the nation’s doctors and nurses.

That opposition has played out in New York, where Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed an executive order Monday night ahead of what could be a health-care worker shortage due to the state’s vaccine mandate that has now gone into effect. The order allows the state to expand the available health-care workforce at a time when thousands of workers are still believed to be unvaccinated.

“The only way we can move past this pandemic is to ensure that everyone eligible is vaccinated, and that includes those who are taking care of our vulnerable family members and loved ones,” Hochul said in a statement.

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In North Carolina, the state is averaging more than 5,130 new daily coronavirus infections over the past week, which is an improvement compared with the previous period, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. More than 3,200 people are being treated for covid-19, including 932 in the intensive care unit.

About 50 percent of the state is fully vaccinated, trailing the national vaccination rate of 55.4 percent.

Novant Health introduced its mandatory policy on July 22, saying that employees were given until Sept. 15 to comply and get vaccinated.

“We agree with the North Carolina Healthcare Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and many other health care systems in the region that a mandatory vaccine program is in the best interest of public health,” the health system said in a news release. “Simply put, it is essential to ensure the safety of our patients, team members and communities.”

Novant Health has urged the community to get vaccinated. It joined other health systems in the Charlotte area in releasing data this month showing how more than 90 percent of their covid-19 patients had not been vaccinated. David Priest, Novant Health’s chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer, acknowledged to WGHP that the recent wave of covid patients had overwhelmed the hospital system.

“They’re tired. I’m tired. We’re all tired,” he said.

On Sept. 21, the hospital system announced that nearly 400 workers remained unvaccinated. Novant Health said in a news release that unvaccinated employees were given a few additional days to get their first dose.

“If a team member remains non-compliant after this suspension period, he or she will have their employment with Novant Health terminated,” the health system said.

Novant Health employees who have been granted medical or religious exemptions are required to undergo weekly coronavirus testing. While working on Novant Health premises, those with exemptions also must wear N95 respirator masks or other personal protective equipment and eyewear protection.

Some unvaccinated workers remained adamant about not getting immunized. Laura Rushing, a nurse of 16 years with Novant Health, told WSOC that the hospital system denied her religious exemption and that she planned to look for a new job.

“When they put the mandate out there, one thing I knew for sure was I was not gonna take the shot. So, I put in for a religious exemption and got denied,” Rushing told the outlet. “Who decided my religious exemption, the wording used was not good enough? It wasn’t as good as someone else’s? That just feels like discrimination and I didn’t appreciate it.”

Novant Health workers have until Oct. 15 to complete their vaccination and remain in compliance, the hospital system said.

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