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NGHS has less than two weeks to comply with a federal vaccine mandate
Dawson County resident Walter Adams Sr. said that he was happy to receive the vaccine and that receiving it felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. - photo by Alexander Popp

About 900 employees in the Northeast Georgia Health System have applied for exemptions rather than get vaccinated against COVID-19 and comply with a federal mandate. 

One in four employees in the health system are not fully vaccinated, and all employees without approved medical or religious exemptions must have at least one dose by Dec. 5 and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 to comply with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services vaccine mandate. 

CMS notified health care providers on Nov. 4 of the coming mandate, which affects almost all staff at health care facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs. Health system officials said this would include nearly all of their 10,000+ employees. 

The CMS mandate, which applies to health care providers, is separate from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration vaccine mandate, which applies to private companies with more than 100 employees. Georgia, along with at least 27 other states, filed a lawsuit against the OSHA mandate on Nov. 5, and that order has been temporarily halted by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Georgia also joined in a lawsuit against the CMS mandate on Nov. 15, but the mandate has not been blocked, and the health system expects it will have to comply by Dec. 5. 

The CMS mandate allows exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs and medical reasons that can include certain allergies, disabilities and other conditions verified by a licensed practitioner, according to the mandate. The health system is encouraging employees to apply for exemptions quickly if they require them, chief legal officer Andrei Boyarshinov wrote in an email Friday, Nov. 19. The only employees not included are those who only work remotely, he wrote.

“The medical form requires an employee’s physician to identify a medical reason as to why the employee should not be vaccinated or have vaccination deferred,” Boyarshinov wrote. “The religious exemption form asks an employee to state their deeply held religious belief and provide any information they wish to support it.” 

Exemption requests are sent to a committee for review using CDC guidelines and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines for medical and religious exemptions respectively. 

There could be serious penalties if the health system is not in compliance in less than two weeks. 

“NGHS would no longer be reimbursed for care provided to Medicare or Medicaid patients – which make up roughly 65 percent of people who live in our region,” Boyarshinov wrote of potential penalties. “We’ve asked for exemption requests to be submitted by Nov. 29, but we’ll also try to be as flexible as possible – as long as we have reasonable time for review and any necessary action to comply by the CMS deadline.”

In a press release announcing the mandate, CMS officials wrote: “The prevalence of COVID-19, in particular the Delta variant, within health care settings increases the risk of unvaccinated staff contracting the virus and transmitting the virus to patients. When health care staff cannot work because of illness or exposure to COVID-19, the strain on the health care system becomes more severe and further limits patient access to safe and essential care.”

CMS estimated the mandate would affect 17 million health care workers across the country. 

In Hall County, 625 people have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according Nov. 19 Department of Public Health data. COVID-19 case numbers have declined since September’s delta variant peak with 31 COVID-19 positive patients in the health system as of Nov. 22, and that number has declined from 96 patients a month ago, according to health system data. 

Northeast Georgia Health System President and CEO Carol Burell wrote in a statement that the mandate put the health system in a tough situation. 

“We’re providing as much information as possible to help our employees make the decision that is right for them,” Burrell wrote.

The health system does not yet know how many employees it could lose because of the mandate, Burrell wrote. An incentive plan was in place for employees to get vaccinated earlier this fall, giving $400 to employees who got vaccinated by Sept. 30.

The health system may develop plans to deal with staffing shortages closer to the Dec. 5 deadline, Burrell wrote. 

“Our focus now is to help our employees make decisions make the decision that’s best for them, under these difficult circumstances, and keep as many people as possible,” she wrote. “As we move closer to the first CMS deadline of December 5, we’ll start to get a better picture of the impact of the mandate – and we’ll develop staffing plans.

This article was originally published by the Gainesville Times, a sister publication to the Dawson County News.