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As hospitals mandate staff vaccines, Mission Health resists

Congressman Madison Cawthorn says medical choice should be between individual and doctor. Congressman Madison Cawthorn says medical choice should be between individual and doctor.

By Peter H. Lewis • Asheville Watchdog | The largest health care providers in Western North Carolina, including Mission Hospital in Asheville, recently confirmed that they are not requiring doctors, nurses, volunteers, or other hospital staff to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus despite a resurgence of infections and hospitalizations. 

Most of the other major hospital systems in the state have made full vaccinations mandatory, citing staff and patient safety as a highly contagious COVID-19 variant spreads nationwide, almost entirely among people who have not been vaccinated or are only partly vaccinated. 

Hospital administrators and clinical leaders say they agree that vaccinations represent the most effective way to stop the pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, including hundreds of people in Asheville and surrounding communities. 

Few people are more familiar with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic than hospital workers. Even so, hospital administrators in Western North Carolina — where science and politics are not always compatible — said nurses, nursing assistants and other hospital workers might quit their jobs at already understaffed health facilities rather than submit to mandatory COVID vaccinations. To fill vacant positions, hospitals typically must pay premium salaries to hire temporary replacement doctors and nurses. 

The tensions between medical science and politics, and between hospital economics and patient and staff safety, are notable in the mountain region of the state, where anti-masking and anti-vaccination sentiment is common. 

As of July 28, “almost 56 percent of Mission Health colleagues and 67 percent of our clinical providers are fully vaccinated,” a hospital spokesperson told Asheville Watchdog. 

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That figure for overall staff is slightly higher than the percentage of people in Buncombe County who are fully vaccinated, 52 percent as of July 28. The figure for “clinicians” — commonly defined as doctors and nurses and other health care professionals who provide direct medical care to patients — suggesting that one-third are not fully vaccinated. 

At Pardee UNC Healthcare hospital in Hendersonville, an estimated two-thirds of the overall staff has been vaccinated, Pardee’s chief executive said. 

At AdventHealth Hendersonville, 65 percent of the staff has been vaccinated, a spokesperson said. 

Haywood Regional Medical Center in Clyde, a Duke LifePoint Healthcare hospital, said it does not require staff to be vaccinated. The Watchdog was unable to learn the percentage of inoculated staff at Haywood. 

Raleigh-based WakeMed Health & Hospitals, Durham-based Duke University Health System, Chapel Hill-based UNC Health, Charlotte-based Atrium Health, Greensboro-based Cone Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health and Winston-Salem based Novant Health, all announced last week that they would require everyone on staff to get COVID-19 shots as a condition of continued employment. 

Dr. William Hathaway, chief medical officer for Mission Health, HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division, told The Asheville Citizen Times recently that while the new COVID-19 “delta” variant is three to four times more contagious than the “alpha” strain that led to lockdowns last year, the failure to vaccinate all the people who could benefit from inoculations is the main cause of rising cases. 

Mission Health announced that because of resurgent cases, it has restricted visitation to allow only one visitor per patient per day at Mission and its other hospitals. 

But while calling vaccinations “critical” to protecting patients and staff, HCA Mission Healthcare has not joined with the other large hospital systems in making the shots mandatory for staff. 

“While colleagues are not required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, our infectious disease experts, as well as those at the CDC, are strongly encouraging vaccination as a critical step to protect individuals from the virus,” said Nancy Lindell, Mission Health spokesperson. 

“As a reminder to protect yourself and prevent the spread of illnesses follow the 3 Ws: Wear a mask, Wait 6 feet apart, Wash your hands frequently,” Mission Health advised in a news release this week. 

 

Administrators fear losing staff 

“We believe vaccinations are the key to ending this pandemic and strongly encourage all of our team members to get a COVID vaccine,” James M. Kirby II, president and CEO of Pardee, said in a recent statement. However, he said, “After consulting with our clinical and medical staff leadership, Pardee has made the decision to not require or mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for our team members.” 

“Several factors played into this decision,” Kirby said, “including an understanding of what we’re experiencing regionally with our workforce, the current [emergency use authorization] status for vaccines, and what’s in the best interest of sustaining services for our community.”

“As the county hospital and a growing regional resource, we are focused on maintaining critical services for our broader community like treating heart attacks or cancer, and addressing day to day urgent and emergent needs,” Kirby continued. “If we were to mandate the vaccine, rather than continuing to encourage and educate, we run the risk of staff departures which would diminish our ability to provide these critical services to our community.”

Kirby said that because Pardee currently does not require a COVID vaccine, it has not required its staff to report whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. “However, based on available reporting metrics and our understanding of vaccinations provided at Pardee to date, we estimate that approximately two-thirds of our team members are vaccinated,” Kirby said. 

Almost all hospitals in North Carolina are struggling to attract and retain nurses and nursing assistants, and many of them currently have hundreds of open positions. But many of the largest hospitals calculated that requiring all staff to be vaccinated would be better for patient and staff safety, outweighing the possible loss of staff who decline to get the shots. 

The problem is not unique to Western North Carolina. 

“It’s a real problem that you have such high levels of unvaccinated individuals in hospitals,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told WebMD Health News.   

“We have to protect our health workforce, and we have to protect our patients. Hospitals should be the safest places in the country, and the only way to make them safe is to have a fully vaccinated workforce,” Gostin said. 

 

‘Proven to save lives’

Opponents of mandatory vaccination point out, correctly, that the COVID-19 vaccines were rushed through development and have not yet been formally approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although they have been granted emergency use authorization (EUA) status because of the global health crisis. 

In an open letter  to all residents of Henderson County, doctors, nurses and health officials of Pardee UNC Health, AdventHealth Hendersonville, Blue Ridge Health and the Henderson County Department of Health all rebutted arguments by anti-vaccine proponents, including one that the “emergency use” status of the COVID-19 vaccines means they are still considered experimental and unsafe. 

“The scientific data confirm to us that the COVID-19 vaccine has been proven to save lives,” the clinicians wrote, citing “ample data from millions of vaccine recipients in multiple countries and in multiple settings which verify the original data on which the [emergency use authorization] was based.” 

 

Politics versus science 

Vaccination rates are lower than national averages in conservative Western North Carolina. Numerous studies have found a correlation between vaccination rates and political party affiliation. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll , 47 percent of Republicans said they were not likely to get vaccinated, compared with 6 percent of Democrats. 

Western North Carolina’s freshman Republican congressman, Madison Cawthorn, said in January that he would not be vaccinated, and more recently has been a vocal critic of any efforts to make COVID-19 vaccinations or masking requirements mandatory. 

Earlier this month, at a Republican Party conference in Texas, Cawthorn called Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s foremost vaccine advocate, a “pawn of the Chinese government” who should be criminally prosecuted if Republicans retake the U.S. House in the 2022 elections. 

“Now they’re talking about going door-to-door to take vaccines to the people,” Cawthorn said at the conference  in Dallas, referring to the Biden administration’s suggestion of sending volunteers into communities to offer vaccines to the unvaccinated. 

Cawthorn said a door-to-door plan would require a “massive” operation. 

“Then think about what those mechanisms could be used for,” Cawthorn said. “They could then go door-to-door to take your guns. They could then go door-to-door to take your Bibles.” 

The United States Post Office began door-to-door delivery operations 219 years ago. Asheville Watchdog has been unable to find evidence that the massive postal mechanism has been used to seize guns or Bibles. 

( Asheville Watchdog  is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer and editor at The New York Times. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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2 comments

  • Thank you for presenting this article in a fair and understandable manner with both views presented. It is a sad state we find ourselves where is it difficult to decide what to believe.
    There are many challenges against what we have been presented with as 'science' by government officials. There is amble evidence out there by licensed physicians and health professionals who present a different view and give facts about the vaccines that is genuinely disturbing. Many say that the vaccines actually can make one more susceptible to the virus and that masks do absolutely nothing to stop it spreading. The example we read is "Trying to prevent a mosquito from getting into your yard with a chain link fence." There is much truth to that statement. These are not 'conspiracy theorists' but people with actual knowledge and experience. The case of Sweden doing virtually nothing back in March of 2020 and came through the whole thing relatively unscathed is well documented. Their economy remained intact and their death rate was well below other countries in the region. We all will die of something. These days there are almost NO deaths from the common cold or the flu, unlike previous years where both took many from our older population. Many of our elderly pass away with a respiratory condition. That was 'normal'. Something is seriously amiss and America better wake up soon.

    posted by sam hopkins

    Friday, 08/13/2021

  • I think people who already took the jab are worried in the back of their minds they think the unvaccinated might be right. And that little bit of doubt is driving them crazy, an itch they can't scratch. If the vaxxes are deadly, they want to take as many others with them as possible.

    posted by Joseph Creighton

    Friday, 08/13/2021

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