NORFOLK, Va. - Sentara Healthcare, Bon Secours, Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters Health System and Riverside Health System announced Wednesday that COVID-19 vaccines will be required for all employees beginning in the fall.
This gives employees eight weeks to become fully vaccinated now that the FDA has approved at least one of the vaccines. Workers do not have to get the vaccine if they have a religious or medical exemption.
The new policy comes as the Delta variant fuels an alarming rise in COVID cases and hospital beds fill up.
“At Riverside, a month ago, we had five or seven patients in the hospital with COVID. We have over 90 today,” said President and COO of Riverside Health System Dr. Mike Dacey.
Dr. Dacey said the mandate is about ensuring safety, adding that about 75% of their workers are already vaccinated.
“We take care of vulnerable people,” he said. “We take care of - all hospitals - sick patients, and if you're sick with one problem, the last thing you need is COVID. Our staff takes care of very sick people as well who have COVID, and it protects them as well from getting ill.”
Dacey emphasized the vaccine’s effectiveness, saying so far, it’s prevented 1.25 million hospitalizations and 300,000 deaths across the country.
Still, that might not be enough to convince some on the fence about getting the shot, even after Pfizer’s full FDA approval and a mandate for healthcare workers.
“I just don't trust it at this point right now,” said Brittney Jones of Hampton. “I feel like it violates our rights as people, human rights to decide whether we want to put something in or on our body.”
Jones used to work as an intake coordinator at Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute until she said she was fired for refusing to get the vaccine after the cancer treatment center mandated it in July.
A representative from HU confirmed to News 3 that it is their policy to terminate an employee who does not comply with the mandate or have a medical or religious exemption.
“It was hurtful because I love my job, so I didn't want to leave my job,” Jones said. “It's sad that it has to be that way.”
While Dacey said Riverside won’t fire its employees for vaccine refusal, he said there are disciplinary actions that could hurt career advancement.
Meanwhile, he understands the new policy might mean people will leave at a time when staff is already stretched thin.
“Certainly, we're concerned about that, but when we weigh the concern about that versus the safety of our patients, the safety of our patients comes first,” said Dacey.
As for Jones, she said she’s already thinking about starting a new career path outside of healthcare.
“I stand up for what I believe in or what I don’t believe in,” Jones said. “I'm not going to let anyone make me put something in my body that I'm not ready to put in my body.”
The Norfolk-based Sentara Healthcare network includes 12 acute care hospitals, 10 nursing centers and an assisted living facility across Virginia and North Carolina, while Bon Secours has four Hampton Roads-area locations.
Most healthcare organizations will require employees to be vaccinated by October 18.
Bon Secours announced that it plans to require all associates and providers physically based in Hampton Roads to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. According to Bon Secours, an effective date for the vaccine requirements has not been determined at this time, but it will most likely be in the fall.
"Bon Secours is in agreement with all Hampton Roads health care organizations that announced they have each expanded their employee vaccination policies to include the expectation that all team members will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19," Bon Secours said in a statement, adding that the decision is based on "firm belief, grounded in scientific evidence" that the vaccine's benefits outweigh its potential risks.
The local healthcare systems is a growing number of hospitals, health systems and employers requiring vaccination requirements for employees as the Delta variant causes surging COVID-19 cases across the United States.
Earlier in August, the Biden administration announced that nursing home staff will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for facilities to receive federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.
“We applaud Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters Health System, Riverside Health System and Sentara Healthcare for taking this important step in the name of public health and safety,” said Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association President and CEO Sean T. Connaughton. “Virginia hospitals and health systems have helped lead the way on vaccination efforts in the Commonwealth, having collectively administered more than 2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses since December 2020, including thousands of shots given to health care professionals.”