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U.S. Sen. Richard Burr objects to vaccine mandate for employers. Says they put unfair pressure on health-care workers.
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U.S. Sen. Richard Burr objects to vaccine mandate for employers. Says they put unfair pressure on health-care workers.

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The Biden administration’s employer vaccine mandate is drawing opposition from U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, who said Friday it will negatively affect Medicare and Medicaid providers.

The federal vaccine mandate, which is being overseen primarily by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is projected to affect more than 84 million Americans who work at businesses with 100 or more employees.

OSHA is asking for public comment on whether the mandate should be required for businesses with fewer than 100 workers.

Medicare- and Medicaid-certified healthcare providers are covered by federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services regulations, which supercede OSHA regulations. Healthcare providers that accept Medicare and Medicaid can’t offer a weekly testing option to unvaccinated employees, though the revamped OSHA regulations permit it.

The health care mandate for employers also applies to clinical workers, nonclinical employees, students, trainees, volunteers and contract employees.

Employees at businesses regulated by either OSHA and CMS have until Jan. 4 to be fully vaccinated and must wear masks starting Dec. 5. Employees who previously had COVID-19 are not exempt from vaccination requirements.

Burr, R-N.C., issued a brief joint statement with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, in which he praised frontline health workers for their work in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But the difficulties and challenges of the last two years have taken a toll,” the senators wrote.

“The Biden administration’s sweeping vaccine mandate risks exacerbating the staffing shortages and burnout health care providers are already facing.”

Biden administration officials have said healthcare workers have a higher obligation to be vaccinated.

An estimated 17 million health care workers, such as those at hospitals and nursing homes, will need to be fully vaccinated or potentially lose their job. They still can request an exemption for medical and religious reasons.

According to USA Today, more than 2,500 hospitals and health systems nationwide had announced mandatory vaccination policies. North Carolina is one of 26 states in which the employer vaccine mandate affects public- and private-sector employers.

The N.C. Healthcare Association said in a statement Friday that “the new vaccine regulations are helpful in setting clear expectations for hospitals and health systems about COVID-19 vaccination requirements for employees, volunteers and students.”

The association said it has “strongly encouraged our members to adopt policies requiring employees to be vaccinated to protect patients and the communities they serve. Most of them have already done so.

“NCHA is continuing to review the new regulations and will be a resource to assist our members in coming into compliance.”

Employers who fail to comply with the OSHA vaccine mandate could face penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.

Biden perspective

President Joe Biden said in a statement Thursday that “while I would have much preferred that requirements not become necessary, too many people remain unvaccinated for us to get out of this pandemic for good.”

Since the Biden administration mandated vaccines for the military and federal contractors in late July, the number of unvaccinated Americans ages 12 and older has dropped by 40% from 100 million to 60 million.

The deadline for full-vaccination compliance for those contractors has been shifted from Dec. 8 to Jan. 4. More than a dozen states have sued to block the mandate on contractors.

Biden stressed that rounds of employer vaccine mandates have not led to mass firings or worker shortages.

Affected employers must verify employees’ vaccination status through CDC vaccination cards and records from doctors or pharmacies. An employee’s signed declaration is acceptable as well.

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Employers will not be required to pick up the cost for weekly testing of unvaccinated employees. They are required to begin providing by Dec. 5 paid time off for employees to get the vaccine and to recover from potential side effects that have them unable to work.

The N.C. Healthcare Association said in a statement Friday that “the new vaccine regulations are helpful in setting clear expectations for hospitals and health systems about COVID-19 vaccination requirements for employees, volunteers and students.”

The association said it has “strongly encouraged our members to adopt policies requiring employees to be vaccinated to protect patients and the communities they serve. Most of them have already done so.

“NCHA is continuing to review the new regulations and will be a resource to assist our members in coming into compliance.”

Proposed N.C. legislation

State House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, released a statement Friday in which he claimed the employer vaccine mandates are “wholly unconstitutional and is a violation of the freedom of all North Carolinians, employers and employees.”

In his statement, Moore cited two vaccine-focused bills under consideration.

House Bill 572, titled “No vaccine mandate by EO, rule or agency,” cleared the House by a 75-38 vote on May 10 with 65 Republicans and 10 Democrats in support. The bill has not been addressed in a Senate committee.

The bill would bar the governor from mandating vaccines by executive order, among other things.

The bill says individuals “who refuses to receive a vaccination under this section shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability for the refusal of vaccination.”

House Bill 686, titled “An act prohibiting state and local government retribution regarding refusal of vaccines,” hasn’t been heard in a House committee since being introduced April 26.

The bill says “employees and applicants shall have the right to refuse any of the coronavirus vaccines without being subjected to termination or retaliation.”

Another key element of the two-page HB686 gives unvaccinated individuals “the same right as an individual who chooses to take any such vaccine to the full and free use of buildings and land owned, leased or otherwise controlled by the state of North Carolina or any of its political subdivisions, including schools, colleges and universities.”

Compliance

The Triad’s three primary health care systems already have implemented employee vaccine mandates.

On Oct. 22, Atrium Health said it is giving thousands of unvaccinated workers until Nov. 30 to fully comply with a vaccine mandate in order to keep their jobs.

The requirement covers 64,750 Atrium employees. More than 19,000 of them work for Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, including 14,000 employees in Forsyth County.

Charlotte NPR-station WFAE reported, based on an Atrium memo sent to employees Oct 20, that about 5,750 employees — nearly 9% of its overall workforce — have yet to comply with the vaccine mandate.

On Sept. 27, Novant Health Inc. fired 175 workers for not complying with its COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

More than 99% of Novant’s more than 35,000 employees are in compliance. The system has about 8,145 employees in Forsyth County.

Arbor Acres United Methodist Retirement Community Inc. became on Aug. 3 one of the first long-term care facilities in N.C. to inform employees that they had to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

About 75% of the nation’s long-term care facility employees are fully vaccinated, according to Mark Parkinson, president and chief executive of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

“While we support the overall intent of this CMS policy, we are concerned that the execution will exacerbate an already dire workforce crisis in long term care,” Parkinson said.

“A hard deadline with no resources for providers or glide path for unvaccinated workers is likely to push too many out the door, and ultimately, threaten residents’ access to long term care.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article

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