North Carolina hospital system fires 175 for failing to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandate

A North Carolina-based hospital system said roughly 175 people out of its 35,000-plus employees have been fired for failing to comply with its COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

Novant Health, a Winston-Salem-based system with 15 hospitals and hundreds of clinics and outpatient facilities, announced last week that 375 workers had been suspended and given five days to comply with the mandate — with a Sept. 24 deadline.

Nearly 200 of those employees came into compliance, Megan Rivers, a spokesperson for Novant Health, said in an email on Monday — resulting in the roughly 175 terminations.

Novant Health has more than 35,000 employees across its hospitals, 800 clinics and hundreds of outpatient facilities. More than 99% of its workers are now compliant with the vaccine mandate, including employees who have submitted an approved religious or medical vaccine exemption, according to a statement.

Novant workers who have gotten their first of a two-dose vaccine, either Pfizer or Moderna, have until Oct. 15 to get the second dose, officials said.

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Employees who have an approved vaccine exemption must undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, wear N95 masks or other PPE, and wear eye protection while working on Novant Health premises, according to the hospital system. Novant Health hasn’t said how many exemptions were granted.

The departures will not impact staffing at the hospital system, according to Dr. David Priest, Novant’s senior vice president and chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer — who noted that it has been hiring temporary staff members throughout the pandemic.

"We have not had a major impact with staffing related to our vaccination program," Priest said at a briefing on Tuesday. "I think the mood is good. When you think about what health care has been through over the last 19 months... I couldn’t be prouder with how they’ve come through all of it."

"The most important thing we do is keeping patients safe," Priest continued. "Our sacred responsibility is to make sure people are not harmed when they come into any of our facilities."

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FILE - A patient receives the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the McLeod Health Clarendon hospital in Manning, South Carolina, on Feb. 17, 2021. (Photo: Micah Green/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Priest dismissed those who have criticized the health system’s vaccine mandate, telling reporters, "Social media has a way of amplifying those voices."

"It doesn’t make sense to me that non-healthcare industries would mandate vaccine and health care would not when that’s our number one job," he said. "The number one medical ethical principle is we do not cause harm to patients or certainly cause their death. That goes before anything else. It comes before my personal choice."

This week, Novant Health had 350 to 400 COVID-19 patients across its hospital system, a decline compared to two weeks ago but still much higher than in early June — when it was caring for just under 100 COVID-19 patients.

"Hopefully we’re moving in the right direction here," Priest said. "One data point that remains stagnant is the number of unvaccinated vs. vaccinated patients that we’re caring for in our hospitals."

Among COVID-19 patients in the system’s intensive care units, 97% are unvaccinated, Priest said.

"This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated. There are occasionally breakthrough cases, but you can still see that vaccines are holding up," he said.

President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that companies with more than 100 workers would have to require vaccinations amid lagging U.S. vaccine rates and the delta variant fueling new virus cases. The federal mandate includes health care workers and federal contractors.

RELATED: Nearly 200M US adults have at least 1 COVID-19 vaccine dose, White House says

A total of 55.8% of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows. Among those 12 and older who are eligible to receive a vaccine, a total of 64.9% are fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the U.S, with the seven-day average of COVID-19 deaths climbing above the 2,000 threshold last week for the first time since March. 

Novant Health’s firings are among the largest staff terminations since hospitals began requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. More than 150 people with Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas were either fired or resigned in June following a vaccine requirement.

RELATED: More than 150 employees at Houston hospital who refused to get COVID-19 vaccine have resigned or been fired

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.