JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — When it comes to the offer of a COVID vaccine, ‘Thanks but no thanks’ has been a more frequent response from Ballad Health clinical staff members that Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton would prefer.

“We have had around 50 percent people accepting the vaccine,” Deaton told News Channel 11 late Monday afternoon. “We want a higher percentage for sure.”

The region’s dominant hospital system, which also includes many outpatient care operations, has thousands of workers who provide direct patient care. It had administered 12,000-plus first-round vaccine doses by Wednesday morning, including many to “1a” health care workers from other employers.

Ballad Health COO Eric Deaton

Deaton said he’s hopeful that as time passes many more employees will step up. He said Operation Warp Speed created a quick process for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) early December “emergency use authorization,” but system leaders are confident in the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

Still, he said he understands the hesitancy.

“People are just curious about it,” Deaton said. “I don’t think health care people are different than anyone else,” Deaton said. “They question that, and what we have found is that as people have seen that it’s gone well for other team members, more and more people are taking it.”

Ballad’s by no means the only hospital system in a hard-hit region with lower-than-desired vaccine acceptance rates by its own direct-care staff.

A report Tuesday from the “Desert Sun” newspaper in Southern California showed a similar 50/50 split among workers in Riverside County, where 100,000 people have tested positive just in the last month.

The head of New York City’s Health and Hospitals system told the New York Post Tuesday the rejection rate there is about 30 percent.

No mandates currently planned

Deaton serves on the Virginia Hospital Association board and works regularly with the Tennessee Hospital Association. He said to his knowledge no hospital system in either state has mandated vaccination for employees.

But Ballad Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels said a mandate — similar to mandated flu vaccinations — is a possibility “far down the road after the vaccine has been studied more and been in practice more.”

Runnels said neither the FDA nor the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended such a move.

“That’s generally one of the triggers for us to make a vaccination or any other requirement mandatory,” Runnels said.

The fact that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are currently available through an emergency use authorization and not a standard approval is definitely a factor.

“I think with the emergency use authorization in place right now that we’ll continue to follow suit with those recommendations and make it voluntary,” Runnels said.

News Channel 11 has asked three large practices about their vaccination uptake rates as well.

ETSU Health hasn’t yet received vaccine for internal distribution, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sheri Holmes said. Their team members who’ve been vaccinated have done so through Ballad or the local health departments.

Since that is considered personal health information, the practice group has no way of knowing the percentage who have taken the vaccine, Holmes said.

For his part, Deaton is expecting a significant uptick in takers.

“People want to get back to normal, this is a way to do it and I think people are starting to realize it’s safe.”