More than 1,600 medical or religious exemptions granted

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — In the end, the mass exodus of vaccine-resistant Ballad Health employees turned out to be more of a trickle.

The hospital system confirmed Friday just 33 of its 13,000-odd employees were out of work after refusing to comply with the federal mandate. That’s down from 63 who hadn’t received a first dose of vaccine by a Feb. 11 deadline. Somewhere between 1,600 and 1,700 employees, or about one in eight, requested and received either a medical or religious exemption.

The figures also show the vast majority of 250 employees who remained in a deferred status on Feb. 16 due to recoveries from COVID have gotten the shot once eligible. Another 450 still had to get their second shots as of Feb. 16 with a March 11 deadline, and clearly most of those did as well. Only 10 of those combined 700 employees remain without a final disposition regarding the mandate.

Most employees whose vaccine status was in limbo due to recent COVID infection or partial vaccination have had that resolved.

“Our team has worked really hard to try to educate people on an individual level,” Ballad CEO Alan Levine said Friday.

“Our approach has to try to be respectful for people’s concerns and meet them where they’re at instead of trying to force something on them. “I think they appreciated that.”

A stick accompanied Ballad’s carrot of respectful persuasion, though. Employees who weren’t fully vaccinated by March 11 could voluntarily quit and be eligible for rehire later, which 13 did. The other 20 are furloughed and if they don’t get vaccinated or voluntarily quit within 90 days they will be fired and ineligible for rehire.

Levine said he still believes the mandate, whose final fate still rests with the courts, is “bad policy.”

“Whether you lose 10 people or 30 when you have a nursing shortage like we do it’s going to have a significant negative effect,” he said.

“Is it better to just lose 10? I definitely think we’ve all breathed a sigh of relief when we saw people taking us up on the offer to get vaccinated.”

Three health systems reported lower percentages of COVID-vaccine exempt employees than Ballad Health.

As the mandate issue worked its way through the courts Levine spoke frequently about his opposition, saying the culture of Appalachia resulted in higher levels of vaccine hesitancy. At the same time, he said Ballad managers were doing all they could to convince their still-unvaccinated employees of the vaccine’s safety and importance.

Levine said in January Ballad was adopting a “liberal” approach to granting exemptions. A review of vaccine mandate data regularly reported by Fierce Healthcare shows the system had a significantly higher portion of exempted employees than three other large systems for whom such data was reported.

Ballad’s exemptions equal over 12% of its workforce. The Fierce Healthcare article said Beaumont Health, based in Detroit, had exempted 7% of its 33,000 employees. Henry Ford Health System, also based in Detroit, had granted 1,900 exemptions, equaling about 6% of its 30,000-plus workforce.

St. Luke’s University Health System which operates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, had the lowest reported exemption rate. Just 4% of its 17,000 employees had sought and received exemptions.

Henry Ford reported 400 resignations of staff due to the mandate. St. Luke’s reported 68 full-time and 87 part-time staff quit.