Novant, Atrium, health departments requiring all employees to get COVID-19 vaccine

CHARLOTTE — Atrium Health and Novant Health have announced that they will require all employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine by this fall.

Last December, Atrium employees became the first in our area to roll up their sleeves and get their vaccinations. The hospital system strongly encouraged but didn’t require employees to get vaccinated.

Now, with vaccinations decreasing, and infections and hospitalization back on the rise, Atrium is reversing their own policy.

Atrium initially said everyone must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31. The health care provider has 70,000 employees across 37 hospitals and more than 1,350 care locations.

“We view it as essential that each of our teammates receive their vaccination to protect themselves, their families and the people in their care,” an Atrium spokesperson told Eyewitness News.

On Monday, Atrium said that while it remains committed to making sure employees comply with the vaccine requirements, many workers asked for more time beyond the Oct. 31 deadline to be fully vaccinated.

“We are recognizing these good faith efforts, and teammates who have received at least one shot are considered on their way to being in compliance with our vaccination policies, as long as they complete their second shot by Nov. 30,” an Atrium spokesperson said Monday. “We greatly value each of our teammates and the critical role they play in providing care to the communities we are privileged to serve and want to give them every opportunity to remain in good standing with us.”

Channel 9 was in one of Novant’s care units several months ago while COVID-19 hospitalizations were down, but with the numbers going back up, it’s also requiring employees to get vaccinated.

Novant initially said everyone will need to be fully vaccinated with both doses of either Moderna or Pfizer by Oct. 15. Team members electing to receive the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine must still receive the vaccine by Sept. 15.

“Roughly 67% of our team members have received at least one dose of vaccine,” a spokesperson with Novant Health said in a statement late Monday afternoon. “Like systems across the country, we are seeing lower acceptance rates among our black and brown team members, as well as those who identify as Gen Z or Millennials. We are seeing a higher acceptance rate among those with higher-level clinical roles. Our physicians, for example, have accepted the vaccine at a higher rate (95%) than the overall team member vaccination rate.”

In August, NCDHHS announced it will require that all employees, volunteers, students, trainees, as well as contracted and temporary workers working at state-operated facilities, be fully vaccinated or receive an approved medical or religious exemption by Sept. 30.

Mecklenburg County Public Health announced that employees will be required to receive the vaccine starting Aug. 2 and must show proof of vaccination by Sept. 7.

“As public health staff, we have led the COVID-19 response efforts for the county and know too well the very high level of sickness, death, and impact the pandemic has had in our community,” said Public Health Director Gibbie Harris. “Despite significant prevention efforts, COVID-19 continues to spread in our community, including new highly contagious variants.”

Harris told Channel 9 that employees have not been required to report if they are vaccinated and that there will be exemptions allowed -- as there are with other required vaccines, including flu. Those exemptions include medical and religious, consistent with state and federal requirements. Harris said if a staff person refuses to be vaccinated, there will be disciplinary action and they will be required to wear a mask 100% of the time while conducting county business and while in county buildings.

“As a provider of healthcare services, the Health Department requires a number of vaccines to protect the people that we serve. COVID-19 has been added to that list of required vaccines,” Harris said. “Our efforts to vaccinate our community to prevent the spread of COVID continues.”

WTVD reported that several other health care providers in the state, including UNC Health and Duke Health, have set deadlines for their employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Both providers said everyone must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 12.

The North Carolina Healthcare Association made it clear it’s part of a statewide push. It said it approves the mandate for health care workers in the following statement:

“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.”

An Atrium spokesperson told channel 9 that their vaccine mandate aligns with the federal government’s push to mandate healthcare workers get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Additionally, the federal government recently announced plans to require all healthcare workers, except those with religious or medical exemptions, to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if their employer receives federal funding, such as from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services or government contracting,” the Atrium spokesperson said. “This new requirement makes it clear that anyone working in a healthcare setting can expect COVID-19 vaccination to be a condition of employment going forward.”

Statement from Novant Health on mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for employees:

“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.

We understand that some team members were awaiting full FDA approval, which Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine received on Aug. 23rd. Additionally, the review process for exemption requests is still underway as we are giving each request thoughtful and careful consideration. As a result, Novant Health is extending the timeframe to complete the vaccination process. Team members now have until Sept. 15 to receive the first dose of Pfizer or Moderna, and they will have until Oct. 15 to receive the second dose. Team members electing to receive the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine must still receive the vaccine by Sept. 15.

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.”

Statement from Atrium Health on the vaccine policy change:

“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 al 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.

As to your question on masking, even though many people in the communities we serve have chosen to forego masks in their day-to-day walk of life, we’re continuing to emphasize the importance of wearing them inside our facilities and require them in all common areas in order to better protect our teammates, patients and visitors.”

(Watch Below: Novant, Atrium doctors say masks for kids heading back to school make sense)