ETSU to maintain mask policy, vaccine requirement for some employees to keep federal funding

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University officials on Tuesday announced the college will upkeep its mask policy and vaccine requirement for some employees, despite Gov. Bill Lee’s signed law that limits COVID-19 restrictions with businesses and other entities.

This follows after the Tennessee Comptroller Office listed ETSU as an exempt entity from the bill to prevent the university from losing federal funding.

ETSU officials cited an increase of COVID-19 case numbers in the Tri-Cities region in an email announcement to university faculty and staff Wednesday afternoon, in part saying the following:

Some of the federal guidance is in conflict with legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor last week. Members of the General Assembly recognized this conflict for those entities that receive federal funding and authorized the State Comptroller to grant waivers, which exempt institutions from aspects of the law in those instances where federal funds may be jeopardized.

ETSU Office of the President

The vaccine requirement extends to about 70 workers at the university who are within the scope of President Joe Biden’s Executive Order, which mandates all federal contractors to A.) get fully vaccinated and B.) follow safety protocols such as wearing a mask.

ETSU Vice President for Clinical Affairs & Dean of Quillen College of Medicine Dr. Bill Block told News Channel 11 the number of staff and faculty under the mandate is expected to grow.

“The initial list of folks was approximately 70,” Block said. “There are probably a few hundred more that will fall in over the next couple of days.”

The statement goes on to say that ETSU officials continue to determine the full impact Biden’s Executive Order will have on the rest of the university’s community; however, some individuals working in ETSU health care facilities or on the VA Campus must comply.

Block said employees that work in laboratories and do research that receives federal funding are required to get vaccinated, barring a religious or medical exemption.

“Often times, those are faculty that are receiving money from NIH (National Institute of Health), or from other federal programs to support research,” Block said.

Some students will be impacted by the mandate, specifically ones that are employed by the university in research settings that receive federal funding.

Block said that applied to very few students. Students that work in clinical programs at Ballad Health or the VA Hospital will fall under the vaccine requirements of those entities.

If ETSU did not follow the federal mandate, the university could have lost $40 million a year, Block estimated.

“We’ve been trying to balance the safety of our employees, the liberties of our staff and faculty and maintaining our federal funding,” Block said. “We have to do what’s best for the institution and really move forward with complying with the federal mandate.”

Under President Biden’s executive order, entities under the federal mandate must continue masking if regional COVID-19 spread is high.

As a result of Washington County’s COVID-19 case rate, ETSU’s indoor mask mandate will continue.

Those who do not receive direct communication from the school’s human resources department do not need to take immediate action, the announcement states.

President Biden’s Executive Order 14042 can be read by CLICKING HERE.

Lee’s bill that limits COVID-19 restrictions and clashes with the federal order can be read by CLICKING HERE.

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