CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two of the Carolinas' largest health systems announced Thursday they will soon require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, joining four other systems across the state.
Employees at both Atrium Health and Novant Health were sent emails on Thursday notifying them of the decision. While healthcare workers were among the first to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, neither Atrium Health nor Novant Health had been previously requiring their employees to be vaccinated.
WCNC Charlotte obtained those emails sent to employees. Just before 2 p.m., representatives for both systems confirmed the new employment requirement.
In a statement to WCNC Charlotte, Novant Health said the deadline for employees to get vaccinated will be Sept. 15, 2021. The health system says they hope their more than 35,000 employees will take the shot voluntarily by then but are rolling out a mandatory vaccination program.
Novant Health to require COVID-19 vaccine for employees
Novant's full statement follows:
"Since the COVID-19 vaccine first arrived at Novant Health, we have been working diligently to overcome vaccine hesitancy among our team members. These efforts include holding weekly forums to address individual concerns and common misconceptions, making the vaccine convenient and accessible, and providing continuous updates on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
We appreciate and acknowledge the tens of thousands of team members who eagerly received the vaccine. Unfortunately, the reality is that vaccination rates remain stagnant across the country, including at Novant Health.
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. Simply put, it is essential to ensure the safety of our patients, team members and communities. Therefore, we are requiring that all Novant Health team members be fully vaccinated by Sept. 15, 2021.
While our hope is for every team member to accept the vaccine on their own, a mandatory vaccination program will ensure that Novant Health’s patients and visitors, as well as our team members, have better protection against COVID-19 regardless of where they are in our health system. This disease is preventable thanks to a safe and effective vaccine, and we are committed to doing everything we can to bring an end to this pandemic."
In a follow-up statement regarding employees who refuse the vaccine, Novant offered this response:
"The vaccination program is required to protect patients from the spread of illness that may occur through transmission from a healthcare worker. If a Novant Health team member does not comply by the deadline, their access will be suspended until their vaccination status is fully compliant. If they remain non-compliant it may lead to termination."
Novant also told WCNC Charlotte about 67% of their employees have gotten the first dose of the vaccine. They noted there are lower rates of vaccine acceptance by BIPOC team members along with Millennials and Gen Z employees. More higher-level clinical employees are getting the shot in comparison; Novant says 95% of their physicians have taken the shot.
Novant tells WCNC Charlotte team members who don't comply by the deadline will be suspended until they are fully compliant, while remaining non-compliant may lead to being fired. Medical and religious exemptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and Novant says those exemptions have been communicated to employees.
Atrium Health to require COVID-19 vaccine for employees
Atrium Health also confirmed more all of the 70,000+ employees across its 40 hospitals and 1,450 care locations will need the vaccine by Oct. 31. Their full statement follows:
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, Atrium Health has earned the trust of our patients and the communities we are privileged to serve for our COVID-Safe practices, designed to maximize patient safety and limit their potential exposure to the virus. With the new Delta variant being far more potent than the original virus, we view it as essential that each of our teammates receive their vaccination to protect themselves, their families and the people in their care.
These new variants are contributing to a 200% increase in hospitalizations – and, among our patients, 99% of those hospitalized in recent weeks have been those who are unvaccinated. This further illustrates the effectiveness of the vaccine.
We have started communicating to all of our teammates (including remote workers, physicians, medical residents, faculty, fellows, trainees, contractors, students/visiting students, members of the medical staff, temporary workers and volunteer staff) that they must be fully vaccinated or have an approved medical or religious exemption. By making the vaccine mandatory for our teammates, Atrium Health, including Wake Forest Baptist Health and Atrium Health Navicent, and along with multiple other health systems across the region, are taking reasonable steps to make sure that our teammates – many of whom remain on the frontlines, interacting directly with people who have COVID – are protected and available to care for members of the community as we deal with the next phases of the pandemic.
We view this vaccine no differently than our requirement for our teammates to get an annual flu shot, as well as be vaccinated for measles, chicken pox and other infectious diseases. The COVID-19 vaccine is essential to protect the health of our teammates and the communities we serve. We believe it is vital that we maintain the safest possible care environment for our patients and this is a critical component of our ability to remain COVID-Safe in the face of new variants impacting our region."
Atrium also provided a response to follow up questions regarding employees who deny the vaccine, or who have a medical or religious exemption:
"All teammates must complete their COVID-19 vaccine series or have an approved medical or religious exemption by Sunday, October 31, 2021. Teammates who do not follow this policy will receive counseling for failing to receive required vaccinations. This could result in consequences up to and including end of employment. We value our teammates who have medical or religious reasons for not receiving the vaccine and will evaluate these requests through a multidisciplinary committee."
When WCNC Charlotte reached out to representatives for both health systems previously on July 14, we were told neither Novant nor Atrium would require the vaccine at the time. The change in policy comes just over a week after those responses were made to us.
Vaccine requirement supported by state leaders
The announcements from Novant and Atrium were joined by similar announcements that Duke and UNC hospitals would require employees to be vaccinated. Additionally, Wake Forest Baptist Health and Cone Health will impose similar requirements. Cone Health provided a July 30 deadline, the earliest deadline announced from any of the six major health systems across North Carolina. Since Wake Forest Baptist Health is part of Atrium Health, the previously-mentioned Oct. 31 deadline for Atrium applies for them as well.
All of this comes as the North Carolina Health Association released a statement supporting vaccine requirements for healthcare employees across the state's 130 member systems:
"North Carolina’s hospitals and health systems exist to improve and protect the health of our communities, which is why they place patient, visitor, and team member health and safety at the heart of the care they provide. In keeping with that goal, the North Carolina Healthcare Association strongly supports hospital and health system policies that require all hospital employees and clinical team members to be vaccinated against COVID-19. NCHA recognizes that each hospital and health system is unique and encourages each to determine the appropriate time to implement a requirement. All hospitals should continue to require other infection control measures per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, such as wearing masks and other personal protective gear.
Our state’s health systems and hospitals have seen first-hand how debilitating and deadly this disease can be. When the COVID-19 vaccines were first released, the NCHA and its members strongly encouraged all North Carolinians, including hospital and health system employees, to get vaccinated against COVID-19. In the months since clinical data has shown the COVID-19 vaccines to be extraordinarily safe and effective, and our best tool to prevent the spread of the disease. The evidence is clear –vaccination against COVID-19 has prevented people from becoming seriously ill, requiring hospitalization, or dying from the virus, as well as spreading it to others. To date, more than 4.7 million North Carolinians and more than 161 million Americans have been vaccinated with minimal side effects.
Most concerning, however, is the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reporting that nearly 99% of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths during May and June were among people not fully vaccinated. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a sharp rise in new coronavirus cases as the delta variant becomes increasingly pervasive. Protecting patients, visitors, and healthcare personnel from COVID-19 continues to be of paramount importance. Hospital and health system employee vaccination against COVID-19 is vital to safely care for patients by protecting them from infection, and to mitigate the spread of the virus within healthcare facilities and among clinicians, patients, and their families and friends."
Shortly after the announcements came out, NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen released her own statement in support of the requirements:
"I am so grateful to our hospitals and health systems who have been tremendous partners as we’ve worked together to respond to the pandemic. We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to our healthcare workforce who have selflessly given so much of themselves to protect and care for us and put us on a path to recovery. Thank you to the North Carolina Healthcare Association, and the health systems that are leading the way requiring vaccination for employees, for taking action to protect the health care workforce, their patients, our communities and the state. Vaccinations are our way out of the pandemic. Don’t wait to vaccinate."
In an interview with WCNC Charlotte's Hunter Sáenz, Cody Hand with North Carolina Healthcare Association said it's important for medical workers to lead by example.
"It really is an important time for us to take this step," Hand said. "We want to make sure that when you come to a hospital, you don't get a disease that we can prevent with a simple vaccine."
As cases and hospitalizations head in the wrong direction, we asked Hand if the requirements are worth the risk of losing critical medical staff during a time when they're needed?
"I think the risk of losing them to death from COVID is even greater," Hand responded. "So, I would say not, it is definitely worth the risk of losing staff who just aren't willing to get the vaccine."
What's next for other healthcare systems in North Carolina?
WCNC Charlotte has reached out to more healthcare systems in our area to see what their plans would be to require employee vaccinations. Here is who we have heard from so far:
- Tryon Medical told WCNC Charlotte on Thursday, July 22 that as of writing, they do not have a vaccine requirement. However, a spokesperson said about 87% of the practice's 450 employees have provided vaccine records and are vaccinated against COVID-19, saying they "haven't had to require it". This does not include about 100 doctors.
- CaroMont Health said they are discussing and planning further to determine how the system will implement vaccine requirements, but "at some point in the future" will add the COVID-19 shot to the list of required vaccines for all new and existing employees. That list includes measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, Hepatitis B, and influenza.
- Piedmont Medical Center says their staff is not required to take the COVID-19 shot.
Stay tuned for the latest from WCNC Charlotte.