Hundreds Facing Termination As Health Care Worker Vaccination Mandate Nears
Speaker 1: (00:00)
California's vaccine mandate for healthcare workers has arrived. Employees of hospitals, nursing homes, doctor's offices, clinics, and other medical facilities have until today to get at least one dose of the COVID vaccine or lose their jobs here in San Diego, most hospitals report their staff, vaccination rates are in the 90% range, but there are still hundreds of healthcare workers who remain unvaccinated. Local hospitals have developed policies that would allow those workers back. If they finally decide to get their shots. Joining me is KPBS health reporter, Matt Hoffman and Matt. Welcome. Hey Maureen. Now, how have hospitals been gearing up for this deadline? Have they seen an increase in workers getting their shots?
Speaker 2: (00:47)
Yeah. Systems have been, you know, working on some contingency plans should a lot of staff not get those shots, but you know, really just in the last couple of weeks, um, you know, go back, there was thousands of workers who had still not done it, but we've seen a very large increase. Um, for example, when this mandate was first announced in early August, um, sharp healthcare said they had 5,000 un-vaccinated employees and now that's down to just the hundred. So, uh, really seeing a lot of people coming into compliance here, sort of at the last minute,
Speaker 1: (01:13)
Can you give us some statistics on how many unvaccinated workers there are in various hospitals around San Diego?
Speaker 2: (01:20)
So the vast majority of workers are getting vaccinated, but there are still hundreds that are not, or they don't have any approved exemptions, whether it be medical or religious. Um, so starting with some of the largest healthcare systems, so sharp healthcare, 18,000 employees right now, they have 480 who are not vaccinated and do not have any approved exemptions, uh, scripts. There's about 16,000 employees. They have about 140 who fit into that non-compliant category. Um, and then we're seeing some high vaccination rates around the county know UC San Diego health, really very high 98% of staff they're fully vaccinated. Palomar health is about 90% of employees are vaccinated or have one of those approved exemptions. And, you know, I think the majority of the major health systems are all reporting north of 90% of staff are either fully vaccinated or have one of those exemptions. And what is the
Speaker 1: (02:07)
Criteria for getting an exemption?
Speaker 2: (02:09)
It can be vague. So we know that there's religious exemptions and there's medical exemptions. So medical exemptions can be easy, you know, that can even be somebody who, you know, is going through a pregnancy right now, or maybe has some underlying condition or where they can't get it. Um, religious exemptions is where it gets a little bit tricky. Um, you know, talking to an attorney, it really hasn't been tested in the courts. And so, you know, systems can have staff fill out a form that says, you know, this is my religious belief. Um, and they can choose whether to accept that or deny that, um, you know, at sharp healthcare, for example, um, they told us that they're being extremely liberal and approving those. Um, so that's sort of the process of how that works.
Speaker 1: (02:44)
I think it still sounds strange to many of us that hundreds of healthcare workers, healthcare workers who spend their days around medical science would resist getting a vaccine. What kinds of reasons do they give?
Speaker 2: (02:55)
You know, we are seeing some trends, um, you know, not a lot of systems are, you know, wanting to talk about this on the record, but sharpen scripts have been, uh, pretty forthcoming. And they saying that they're seeing a trend of people who are citing, um, you know, using old fetal cells and the testing of the vaccines. That's like the number one thing that they're seeing. Um, and you know, one thing to note too, is that places like Scripps are reaching out to the attorney General's office, asking for more guidance about these exemptions, these religious exemptions, um, and at script specifically, they're giving temporary, uh, exemptions. So that, that means that, you know, if the AGS office says, Hey, this is a, what qualifies as a bonafide, a religious exemption. Those could later be rescinded.
Speaker 1: (03:34)
I spoke with script's CEO, Chris van Gorder, and he says script's health will terminate on vaccinated workers. Tell us about that.
Speaker 2: (03:42)
Yeah. So at Scripps health specifically, they have about 140 employees who aren't vaccinated and do not have one of those religious exemptions and their policy regarding the mandate is those non-compliance will be let go at the end of today at Thursday, um, now, but there is going to be a 30 day window. So once they're let go, they're going to be terminated today. And then they have 30 days to sort of get in compliance. So that's either getting a religious exemption or getting fully vaccinated. And if that happens, then they'll be returned back to full status. Uh, but you know, letting go of staff is not easy, especially right now as script CEO, Chris van Gorder explained to me, I don't want,
Speaker 3: (04:16)
Was there any employees? I mean, you know, you'll hear from every healthcare organization, we have a lot of staffing shortages right now,
Speaker 2: (04:21)
And we know that a lot of places are hiring scripts is hiring for many positions, but, you know, keep in mind. It's also tough because it's very hard to bring in travel nurses right now they're in very, very high demand. And the ones that these systems can find they're having to offer incentives like extra pay and benefits.
Speaker 1: (04:35)
Now, some hospitals here have decided not exactly to fire unvaccinated employees right away. Are they putting those workers on some sort of,
Speaker 2: (04:44)
Yeah. Majority of the systems are putting employees on leave and then, you know, giving them some time to sort of getting compliance. Obviously scripts is sort of doing it a little bit, uh, the other way around, just sort of terminating and then giving them a chance again and compliance. Um, so like at Kaiser, for example, um, those noncompliance will have, uh, will be put on up to 60 day unpaid leave. And if they get in compliance, you know, they're welcome back, um, at Palomar health and sharp healthcare, um, it's going to be a 30 day unpaid leave for those, uh non-compliance. And I spoke to the chief operating officer at sharp healthcare, Brett McLean this morning. He says, as it stands about right now, hundreds of employees will be being put on unpaid leave. We've got a,
Speaker 4: (05:19)
About a 480 or so, uh, right now who have not been vaccinated or have a, uh, an exemption, uh, in place. Uh, so, uh, as of tomorrow, uh, they will go on administrative leave. We'll work with them as much as we can over the next 30 days, uh, to get them vaccinated if they so choose.
Speaker 2: (05:40)
And it's, it's worth to keep in mind, you know, many of these systems, they say, Hey, look, we have J and J Johnson and Johnson, this single dose of vaccines on hand. So there's still time for them to get vaccinated today and being compliant so that, that they don't call an unpaid leave, or they're not terminated at the end of the day today, since
Speaker 1: (05:55)
Kids can't get vaccinated, the situation over at Rady children's hospital is slightly different and that hospital is taking a harder line on workers. Who've asked for a vaccine exemption, isn't it?
Speaker 2: (06:06)
They are, you know, Rady's officials have made the determination that unvaccinated workers can no longer be in a role that involves, uh, patient contact as they describe it. Um, basically saying that's because of a large portion of their patients are in vaccinated. So we're talking about kids who are under 12, uh, officials say they're that, that accounts for about 75% of the minors that they see and work with. Um, and basically they're offering a non-compliant employees, those unvaccinated, those that don't have these exemptions, uh, roles that do not involve patient care and, or they're going to be putting them on a short-term leave of absence
Speaker 1: (06:38)
And speaking with KPBS health reporter, Matt Hoffman, Matt, thank you so much.
Speaker 2: (06:42)
Speaker 5: (06:44)
The vast majority of San Diego County health care workers are complying with the state's vaccination mandate, those who remain unvaccinated or do not have an approved exemption after Thursday are facing termination.
"The numbers are pretty small for us," said Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder.
Van Gorder said with the state mandate looming there has recently been an increase in employee vaccinations, and a day before the requirement hits just about 140 workers — or less than one percent of the workforce — are not vaccinated or have approved religious/medical exemptions.
"I don’t want to lose any employees," he said. "You’ll hear from every health care organization we have a lot of staffing challenges right now."
Per Scripps’ policy, if those 140 employees are not vaccinated by end of day Thursday they will lose their jobs.
"We’re terminating because that’s what the rules say but if our employees get compliant within a month they will be rehired, full status resumed," Van Gorder said.
Van Gorder added he was expecting to see a minimal impact to day-to-day operations.
While Scripps has less than one percent of employees facing possible termination, other systems have more. A spokesperson for Sharp HealthCare said they have three percent of the workforce or 539 employees unvaccinated and without exemptions. The spokesperson added just under 92% of Sharp's 18,246 employees are fully vaccinated, with 3.8% (691) people having approved exemptions and 1.6% (292) employees being partially vaccinated.
At Sharp and other systems including Palomar Health and Kaiser, non-compliant employees will be placed on unpaid leave before facing termination.
A spokesperson from UC San Diego Health said numbers are still coming in, but as of mid-day Wednesday their vaccination rate was 98%.
At Palomar Health, a spokesperson said they are not foreseeing a negative impact to operations in any way. The system is reporting 90% of staff are vaccinated or have an approved exemption.
Local Kaiser Permanente officials did not have numbers for San Diego County employees, but company-wide are reporting about 97% of employees are vaccinated or have asked for an exemption.
It is a different story at Rady Children's Hospital. A spokesperson said unvaccinated staff will not be involved in care where there is patient contact.
"For employees who have requested a medical or religious exemption and who are in a patient contact role, they are being offered options that range from a position that does not involve patient contact for which they are qualified or requesting a short term leave of absence," an emailed statement said.
The Rady's statement said officials are continuing to work with affected staff to discuss available options.
The California Hospital Association sent a memo to health care executives earlier in the week suggesting hospitals that will be gravely impacted by implementing the staff vaccination mandate may be able to delay the process by 45 days.
A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) would not confirm that Wednesday and provided a statement from the state's public health officer.
"This is a critically important mandate that helps ensure the safety of all individuals in our health care system," said State Public Health Officer and CDPH Director Dr. Tomás J. Aragón. "We will continue to do what we can to make sure individuals get vaccinated, but this is a deadline we are watching closely and expect full compliance. We cannot underscore enough that vaccinating health care workers is a key component of providing health care."