Tower Health has postponed the deadline for mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for many of its 14,000 employees until next year.
Tower told employees last week it had extended its deadline until Jan. 17 for staff not in Philadelphia.
Staff at Chestnut Hill Hospital, St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and Philadelphia-based Tower Health Medical Group and Urgent Care sites still must be vaccinated by Oct. 15, per a mandate from the city of Philadelphia.
Tower had initially said the mandate would take effect 90 days from the full approval of the Pfizer two-dose vaccine. That approval occurred Aug. 23, and the mandate would have taken effect Nov. 21.
The West-Reading based health system said the extension was made for logistical and administrative reasons.
“This additional time is needed to work through logistical and administrative processes to ensure a smooth implementation and management of the mandate,” Tower said in a statement to Reading Eagle. “It also allows us to implement our annual flu vaccination of staff which takes place October to December each year.”
Tower said about two-thirds of its staff of about 14,000 was vaccinated when it announced the COVID mandate earlier this month. Tower said more employees have been vaccinated but declined to give specifics.
Tower’s decision comes as health systems across the region and nationally are grappling with a federal push to vaccinate, and a scramble to find and retain staff, whose ranks have been depleted by fatigue from the pandemic and previous trends unrelated to vaccine mandates.
Willing to leave
For those at Tower who don’t want the vaccine, the fight is fraught.
Several Reading Hospital nurses and a physician say they’re part of a group of employees who won’t agree to the vaccine mandate even if it means getting fired.
Among them is Mary Galantino, an oncology nurse at Reading Hospital since 2015, who this week received a one-year religious exemption for the vaccine.
Like other staff members who are ruled exempt, she is required to be tested for COVID twice per week, but Galantino said staff hasn’t received details on how that process will work.
Prior to receiving the exemption, though, Galantino said she was willing to risk her job rather than agree to the mandate.
“I was really hoping it didn’t come to that. That would be a sad day. But I think it’s a personal decision whether to get the vaccine,” she said. “I don’t feel my employer should make that decision for me.”
Galantino, who took part in a meeting Monday on Tower’s mandate, said she is one of more than 300 staff members in a private Facebook group who oppose the mandate for numerous reasons.
Some are concerned about side effects of the vaccine, or question its effectiveness, while others have decided against it for more religious reasons or feel their freedom is being compromised, she said.
A number of staff members who’ve already had COVID feel they should be exempt because they’ve already had the virus and believe they now have immunity from it, she said.
Tower is already short on employees, Galantino said, and if more workers leave due to vaccine mandates it will hurt patient care in the community.
A Reading Hospital physician who requested anonymity said he, too, would rather lose his job than get vaccinated due to the mandate.
He has requested a religious exemption but has not yet heard back. He said regardless of whether he receives it, he won’t be getting vaccinated.
He said he’s already applied for jobs elsewhere, and is considering getting into consulting or taking a break from medicine to see how things play out.
He said that because doctors earn high salaries, many won’t be willing to leave the profession, but said he knows some that like him would rather change careers than give in to the mandate.
Part of the issue is that so many in health care are already burnt out from their work during the pandemic, he said. For some of them, the vaccination requirement is the last straw, he said.
“People are fed up with the stress,” he said.
Reading Hospital, Tower’s flagship, employs about half of the system’s employees.
Won’t give in
Missy Oaks, a critical care nurse at Reading Hospital for two and a half years and a nurse since 2009, was also part of Monday’s meeting and has helped organize those opposed to the mandate.
She is applying for an exemption, but said that if she doesn’t receive it she’d get fired before she got vaccinated, as difficult as that would be for her.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this job,” she said. “So I’d have to choose between losing my job or going against my ethical and religious beliefs.”
If it comes down to it, though, Oaks said she’d stick to her belief in the freedom to make her own medical decisions.
She also has questions about how much protection the vaccine provides and its side effects, and hopes that between now and January that Tower Health will look into those concerns and revoke the mandate.
“A lot of employees are asking, ‘why are they pushing so hard for it (the vaccine)?’ ” she said. “Why am I being forced to do this? If the answer is that it will stop me from getting my patients sick, I want to see the data on that.”
The physician who requested anonymity said he gets pressured by other doctors at the hospital who don’t understand why he won’t get vaccinated.
“They ask ‘why aren’t you getting it?’ ” he said.
But he won’t give in to that pressure.
If the hospital sticks to its mandate and fires employees, the community will suffer in regards to health care, he said.
“It’s a shame,” he said.
Other hospital systems
Hospitals emphasized patient and staff safety in their vaccine mandates.
Geisinger Health System has extended its Oct. 15 deadline to Nov. 1. About 91% of its almost 24,000 employees are vaccinated, received one dose or been approved for an exemption, said spokesman Marc Stempka.
Geisinger is based in Danville, Montour County.
”This was extended due to anticipated high demand for vaccines due to third doses, boosters and federal vaccine mandate announcements,” Stempka said.
He said the exemption process is available for employees who have a documented and very specific medical reason or sincerely held religious belief that preclude them from receiving the COVID vaccine.
Geisinger is not accepting prior infection as an exemption.
“COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to surge, making it more important now than ever to stress that the science is clear — the vaccine is our best hope to stop the spread of COVID-19. Data has repeatedly shown that even for people who already had COVID-19, the vaccine is not only perfectly safe, but still reduces the likelihood of infection compared to those who rely on just natural immunity alone,” said Dr. Stanley Martin, Geisinger director of infectious diseases in an emailed statement. “Since May 1, 90% of those hospitalized at Geisinger with COVID-19 have not been fully vaccinated. Our obligation as a health care provider is to do everything we can to protect our patients, their families and each other. This includes requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for everyone, regardless of whether they’ve had COVID-19 before or not.”
Martin noted that recently announced federal vaccine requirements mean employees at virtually all health care organizations will soon be required to receive the vaccine anyway.
Stempka said Geisinger was confident the vaccine mandate would attract and retain employees that share its values.
“Because safety of our patients and staff is our top priority, the decision to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine was one that fulfills our obligation to do everything we can to protect our patients, their families and each other,” Stempka said. “And it will help make sure we have staff available to provide high-quality, accessible care for friends and neighbors who rely on us every day for it.”
Meanwhile, Lehigh Valley-based St. Luke’s University Health Network announced that its 17,000 employees have complied with its previously announced COVID vaccine mandate.
As of Sept. 25, 68 full time employees and 87 part time/per diem employees chose not to become vaccinated and resigned from St. Luke’s, the system said.
Forty-six employees received a medical exemption, 406 employees were granted a religious exemption, and 216 employees were granted a temporary deferral for pregnancy or a positive COVID test within the last year.
Those with exemptions or temporary deferrals will undergo weekly COVID tests as a condition of continued employment.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced a COVID vaccine mandate that will apply to tens of millions of Americans employed in the public and private business sectors, including those in health care.
St. Luke’s adopted its mandate before Biden’s announcement.
At Penn State Health, which owns St. Joseph Medical Center in Bern Township, there is no systemwide mandate.
As of Sept. 9, at least 82% of staff have voluntarily chose to receive the shot, Penn State Health said. The system held a vaccination clinic for staff at St. Joseph on Sept. 14.
“We are still working through the implications associated with the president’s plan,” said spokesman Scott Gilbert. “We expect further guidance on the requirements for health care workers to be issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services next week and will respond accordingly. In the meantime, we are continuing to encourage vaccination among our people and are providing them with access to vaccines.”
While Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network have agreed to allow employees an antibody exception from their vaccine mandates, Tower Health and Geisinger have not.
Source: Berkshire mont