Thousands of Georgia hospital employees face COVID-19 vaccination deadline

Friday was a day some Georgia healthcare workers were looking forward to and others were dreading.

October 1, 2021, was the deadline for health care workers at about half of the hospital systems in metro Atlanta to show proof they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, or face losing their jobs.

Healthcare workers from Wellstar Health System protested earlier this summer after Georgia hospitals began announcing they would required employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine or face termination.

But, the October 1 deadline to show proof of vaccination passed pretty quietly at several metro Atlanta hospitals.

Public health microbiologist Amber Schmidtke, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Saint Mar,  says vaccine mandates for healthcare workers make sense to her.

"Because, at the end of the day the first rule is ‘do no harm,’" Schmidtke says. "And, if at the end of the day we're accidentally bringing disease into that environment where patients are vulnerable, that can be incredibly troubling and tragic, really, that we would inadvertently cause harm to patients."

Piedmont Healthcare, the first Metro Atlanta health system to announce it would require vaccinations earlier this year, told FOX 5 the number of full-time employees who are not fully vaccinated was "minimal" and would have no impact on their daily operations.

Friday was also the vaccine deadline for employees at WellStar Health System and Emory Healthcare. 

October 1 was also a cutoff day for Grady doctors, management staff, and vendors to show proof they were fully vaccinated.

Healthcare workers can apply for a medical or religious exemption.

Most health systems already require proof of other vaccinations against diseases such as Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR), chickenpox, and flu.

The mandates are going into effect the day after Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and the Georgia Department of Public Health Director Dr. Kathleen Toomey warned Georgia could face yet another surge this winter.

Amber Schmidtke, who writes an online newsletter tracking the pandemic in Georgia, says the state could be hit with both COVID-19 and seasonal flu.

"We've seen what happens when our hospitals get overwhelmed by COVID surges," Schmidtke says.  "And, the last thing we need is for healthcare workers to be out sick with a preventable illness."

About 47% of Georgians are fully vaccinated, and 54% have received one dose of the vaccine.

Piedmont Healthcare Statement:

"Friday, October 1, 2021, will mark the deadline for all staff at Piedmont to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This is in keeping with our already existing policy of requiring proof of other vaccinations like Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) and Varicella for new employees and in requiring the annual flu vaccine for all current employees. A great deal of care, consideration and conversation occurred over the past months, including guidance for those who may have been exempt and communicating with team members to ensure we had the proper information.

"The number of full-time employees who will not be fully vaccinated by the deadline was minimal and, therefore, there was no impact on our operations. At Piedmont, we hold ourselves to the highest standard and are committed to doing whatever we can to ensure a safe and quality experience for our employees and the communities we serve, which, in this case, meant enforcing a requirement that our workforce is vaccinated against COVID-19."

Wellstar Health System:

"Extensive clinical and scientific evidence has shown that the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are safe and extremely effective at preventing severe illness from COVID-19. Vaccination is the best protection available against the virus.

"To protect team members, patients, and communities, Wellstar Health System is requiring all team members to be vaccinated by October 1. This decision is in alignment with other leading health systems in Metro Atlanta and the country.

"We remain focused on offering the COVID-19 vaccine to each of our valued team members as we approach the October 1 deadline."

 St. Mary’s Health Care System and Trinity Health Statement:

"St. Mary’s Health Care System and Trinity Health take safety seriously; in fact, it is one of our Core Values. That is why Trinity Health was the first major national health system to require COVID-19 vaccination for all colleagues and clinicians.

"The majority of Trinity Health’s 117,000 colleagues were already vaccinated before our requirement was announced. We are grateful for the support most of our staff have shown.

"We asked our managers to set the example and more than 99 percent of our colleagues in management roles met the requirement. More specifically, fewer than 5 of our 5,000 managers nationally chose to leave the organization.

"We know about 95 percent of our non-management staff nationally and across St. Mary’s have also acted to meet the requirement. We are still processing documentation and working through our process with colleagues. Once we have final numbers, we will share.

"We are providing every opportunity for our colleagues to meet the requirement, including education and support to those colleagues who have not yet submitted information about their vaccination status.

"The COVID-19 vaccine is the single most effective tool in slowing, and even stopping, the spread of this deadly virus and will prevent the emergence of new variants. As health care professionals, it is the right thing to do to protect ourselves as well as our patients, families and communities – especially the most vulnerable."

Emory Healthcare Statement:

"Emory Healthcare continues to support its care team members on successfully achieving COVID-19 vaccination requirements by Oct. 1, 2021. We feel our decision to require COVID-19 vaccinations for our workforce is the right and best decision from a public health perspective and our strongest defense against the virus to protect our patients, staff, physicians and community."

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous edition of this story provided an incorrect deadline for Floyd Medical Center's vaccine mandate. Floyd Medical Center in Rome has not yet established a timeline to implement the vaccine mandate. A Floyd Medical Center spokesperson said the medical center's priority is caring for patients, including an unprecedented number of COVID-19 positive patients.