JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Large companies across the region are grappling with how to handle new mandates from the federal government requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, meaning employees will lose their jobs if they choose not to get it.

Thursday, Ballad Health announced all employees are now required to be fully vaccinated by January 4. First doses are due by Dec. 5, which is in about three weeks.

Ballad executives spoke Friday, addressing what some would call an unpopular decision.

“I wanna be clear. These people, whether they are vaccinated or not, these people are heroes. They have worked their tails off for almost two years to take care of our region,” said Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine.

At risk of losing crucial federal dollars from programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Ballad Health leaders explained that not complying with the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate is not an option.

According to Ballad, more than 70% of its patients depend on government insurance.

Though a fierce advocate of the vaccine, the sweeping mandate is something the leader of our region’s largest health system has expressed multiple times he does not agree with.

“Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to this nationally is in my view, a mistake. I’ve said that, I believe it even as we comply with it,” Levine said. “In rural communities, even in the best of times, it is more difficult to recruit and retain. You now have implemented a policy where it is going to have a disproportionate effect on rural communities.”

Levine even recently testified before Congress against mandating the vaccine, which is why Ballad has not required employees to be vaccinated, until now.

“If you do this and you lose even 3 to 5% of your nurses, that is going to have a major effect. We already have a shortage and people feel it,” said Levine.

Ballad Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift says for those considering leaving their jobs over a vaccine mandate, to make sure misinformation is not fueling that choice.

“Find those trusted resources and get the solid, factual science about the vaccine,” said Swift.

Ballad Health does require several other vaccines for their employees, including the flu shot. Levine says the discussion over requiring the COVID-19 vaccine is different.

“Never before has the federal government made us do a mandated vaccine. Every time we have done it, it has been based on local conditions, standards of care and with the consent and agreement of the overwhelming majority of our team members who eagerly and voluntarily comply with it,” said Levine. “I think two or three years from now, people would be having a different conversation about the COVID-19 vaccine when there is more experience.”

Levine admitted with around 60 percent of Ballad’s employees fully vaccinated, that stagnant number likely would not have grown substantially any time soon without a mandate.

The CEO maintains he believes getting the vaccine should be a personal choice.

“We’ve done everything we can do to respect people’s choices, while we also have a fiduciary responsibility to comply with the law,” said Levine. “We are going to continue to educate people. Even though it has now been required by the federal government, we still want to be sure we are educating people on the efficacy and the safety.”

PODs will be set up at Ballad facilities so employees can easily get the vaccine and have access to get their lingering questions answered.

Approved religious and medical exemptions will be the only exceptions. Pregnant mothers can request a deferral on getting the vaccine if an OB/GYN concurs this is in the woman’s best interest.