UNC, Rex and Duke hospitals mandate COVID shots for workers

Several hospitals in the Triangle say they will require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, changing a policy of voluntary inoculation that’s been in place since the vaccines became available last winter.

All three Duke Health hospitals and UNC Health Hospitals in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Siler City and Johnston County are among the first in North Carolina to require vaccination.

The move comes as the association that represents hospitals in the state came out in favor of mandatory vaccination for all health care workers on Thursday. The N.C. Healthcare Association represents all 130 hospitals in the state.

“Our state’s health systems and hospitals have seen first-hand how debilitating and deadly this disease can be,” the association said in a statement Thursday. “When the COVID-19 vaccines were first released, the NCHA and its members strongly encouraged all North Carolinians, including hospital and health system employees, to get vaccinated against COVID-19. In the months since, clinical data has shown the COVID-19 vaccines to be extraordinarily safe and effective, and our best tool to prevent the spread of the disease.”

Until now, hospitals in North Carolina have not required their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Most have said they did not want to force workers to receive a vaccine that was approved by the Food and Drug Association for use on an emergency basis. In addition, all three vaccines, from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, were developed and released quickly, by historical standards, making some people hesitant.

Swati Amin gives a COVID-19 vaccine to Daniel Carbajal at the NC Heart and Vascular Hospital at UNC REX in Raleigh, N.C. on Thursday, December 17, 2020. Julia Wall [email protected]

But the evolution of the virus, producing the delta variant that is more contagious than previous versions, is posing new risks to employees and patients and causing hospitals to reconsider their policies.

“The only truly effective prevention is in fact vaccination,” said Dr. Thomas Owens, senior vice president of Duke University Health System.

Through voluntary measures, hospitals say as many as three-quarters of their employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but those numbers have leveled off. Owens said more than 77% of Duke University Medical Center in Durham have been vaccinated, short of the hospital’s goal of 90%.

“Through voluntary vaccination, we’ve not been able to get the level of vaccination that’s desirable in a health care setting,” he said.

Owens said Duke’s goal is that all employees be fully vaccinated by Sept. 21. He said he expects resistance from some employees, who will need persuading.

“I believe the majority of our team members, even those who have chosen to not yet get vaccinated, will be supportive of this move and will understand the rationale,” he said. “And we’re going to keep talking about it to help people. There’s obviously a lot of misinformation out there.”

Coronavirus surging again among unvaccinated people

The change in policy on vaccination at hospitals comes as COVID-19 is rebounding in North Carolina and across the country, driven by the delta variant.

The state has reported more than 1,000 cases a day on average over the last week, including 1,800 on Thursday, up from a few hundred a day in late June, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide has risen by about 50% in the last week, to 751 on Thursday.

About 94% of new cases are among people who are not vaccinated, according to state health officials.

Duke and UNC are among several hospitals statewide that announced they intend to require COVID-19 vaccination. Others include Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, Cone Health in Greensboro and Atrium and Novant, both based in Charlotte. The UNC hospitals adopting the policy are UNC Medical Center, UNC Rex, UNC Johnston, UNC Chatham, UNC Rockingham and UNC Southeastern.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, praised the decision.

“Thank you to the North Carolina Healthcare Association, and the health systems that are leading the way requiring vaccination for employees, for taking action to protect the health care workforce, their patients, our communities and the state,” Cohen said in a written statement. “Vaccinations are our way out of the pandemic.”

WakeMed, with hospitals in Raleigh and Cary and clinics throughout Wake County, has not decided to require vaccination but has been considering it for some time, said Amanda Edwards, who is overseeing the vaccination effort at WakeMed.

“We are working on that; we are working to determine what a requirement would look like,” Edwards said Thursday. “Our biggest focus now is to continue to encourage our employees to become vaccinated.”

Edwards said she’d love to see everyone at WakeMed get vaccinated.

“It does concern me when I hear of an employee who’s not vaccinated,” she said. “Particularly with the delta variant and the high transmissibility there, I’m concerned for their safety and the safety of our staff and patients in this health care system.”

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Profile Image of Richard Stradling

Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He’s been a reporter or editor for 33 years, including the last 21 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, [email protected].

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