Ballad CEO says Badge Buddies program is least intrusive way to comply with ‘heavy-handed’ regulation

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The head of Ballad Health says the health system’s decision to require that employees wear color-coded badges indicating their COVID-19 vaccination status is necessary to comply with new federal guidelines.

Under the Badge Buddies program, vaccinated employees who choose to disclose that their vaccinated will don blue badges while unvaccinated employees and/or those who don’t choose to disclose their vaccination status will wear orange badges.

CEO Alan Levine says the program is not an attempt to invade employee privacy.

“To be clear it’s voluntary. Our employees may choose to wear the blue which indicates to fellow team members that they have chosen to be vaccinated and they have chosen to share that,” Levine said. “If you don’t want to share your vaccine status you wear orange which says, ‘I don’t want to share my vaccine status,’ or if you chose not to be vaccinated you wear orange.”

The health system employs around 14,000 people.

Levine says the Badge Buddies program is in response to new guidelines from OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. On June 21, OSHA issued an emergency temporary standard aimed at protecting health care workers from COVID-19 exposure.

READ: Occupational Exposure to COVID-19; Emergency Temporary Standard on 6.21.2021

Levine said “it’s the least intrusive way to handle a heavy-handed new requirement out of Washington.” It also allows Ballad officials to “know instantly if we are complying with OSHA requirements or not,” he said.

“We have to find a way to comply with one of the provisions of the OSHA mandate on us which says we have to have an understanding of vaccine status of team members,” Levine said.

OSHA says vaccinated employees don’t have to wear masks or social distance when not around patients.

“If you are not vaccinated then you have to wear masks, you have to be socially distanced and there’s a different set of rules that apply to those employees,” Levine explained.

While other health systems require their employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19, Ballad’s CEO believes that is not the right move at this time for Ballad Health.

“At this point we don’t think it’s appropriate to require people to get vaccines that are not fully approved by the FDA,” Levine said. “Data seems to indicate it’s safe. But at this point we’re not prepared to mandate it.”

Levine says Ballad Health has until July 21 to comply or face massive fines.

Ballad estimates about 63% of the hospital system’s employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

On Wednesday, Ballad said they’re treating 33 patients for COVID-19.

Levine said the health system has seen a 65% increase in hospitalizations since July 4, and he said Ballad’s positivity rate has doubled in the last two weeks.

I’m certain you are now aware of steps Ballad Health is taking in order to comply with federal rules recently imposed on health care employers – rules which require that employers differentiate the vaccination status of employees for the purpose of protecting employees who are not vaccinated, or who are vaccinated, but remain at some risk.  This new rule was promulgated using what is called an “Emergency Temporary Standard” – a rarely used mechanism to impose emergency rules which have the force of law.  

Some of our team members have reached out to me expressing concerns about their individual vaccination status being exposed.  I understand this concern and empathize with those of you who feel this way.  As of now, the decision as to whether to vaccinate is an individual choice, and Ballad Health has not required the vaccination.  Dozens, and growing, of large health systems have begun requiring their team members to vaccinate, or face termination.  Among them are very notable systems, such as Piedmont Health in Atlanta, Inova in Virginia, Trinity Health, Yale, Mercy, Henry Ford, Mass General, ALL hospitals in Maryland and Connecticut, New York Presbyterian, Indiana University, Houston Methodist, and the list goes on.  

As I said, at this time, Ballad Health has chosen NOT to require the vaccine of its team members. The primary reason for this, at this time, is our belief that imposing this requirement for a vaccine which has not received final FDA approval outside of an emergency use authorization, is not our preference.  We do require vaccination for the flu, with certain very narrow exceptions.  The decision about not requiring the vaccine could change, depending upon external factors and other issues that affect our workforce.

Because we are not requiring the COVID vaccine at this time, in order to comply with the new Federal OSHA standard, we must make certain that safety precautions are taken.   For instance, when in settings where some team members are not fully vaccinated, we must ensure ALL team members are wearing masks and remaining socially distant.  In order for us to comply with this requirement, it is necessary to be able to differentiate who is vaccinated from who is not.   

The simplest solution to this is to require vaccinations.  But we are resisting this out of respect for each individual’s right to make that choice for themselves.   That choice, however, does come with some ramifications for each of our fellow team members.   So, while I do understand some people are not happy with the steps we have taken to differentiate your vaccine status, please know that this is the most effective way for us to respect your right NOT to vaccinate while also respecting each’s right to remain safe in the workplace.  

I continue to urge you to consider taking the vaccine if you have not done so.  The data suggests that adoption of the vaccines has come with a significant reduction in risk of spread of the COVID-19 variants, the most aggressive of which – Delta – is bearing down upon us.  Does the vaccine come with some risk?  Yes, all vaccines do.  And I would highly recommend you do your research from trusted sources if you do have concerns about the risks.  

None of this is easy, and it seems no matter what we do, we will have team members who are upset.  Some have encouraged us to require the vaccine of all team members, as other health systems have done.  Others would prefer we not do the color coding, and thus making the vaccine status known by our fellow team mates.   Here is the reality:  We must comply with federal rules.   And, we will take all necessary steps to ensure we have the staffing to safely care for our patients. 

We will engage directly with caregivers to gauge ongoing input on this issue, as we need and want your guidance on how to create the best, most effective, and safest workplace possible.  I encourage you to discuss this with your supervisor, and if you have ideas or suggestions, please share them through those channels.  This policy may change, depending upon OSHA guidance and input from our team members.

As always, I am grateful to each of your for the work you do on behalf of our patients and communities.  Public Health is at the core of what we do, and at the end of the day, we must lead based upon what the evidence shows us is effective in helping to reduce the consequence of a public health threat.  I know ultimately we all can agree on that.

Letter to Ballad Health employees from CEO Alan Levine

I would like to follow up to my email from this morning to clarify something which may not have been clear enough in my email.  

The purpose for the OSHA rule is to ensure employers take appropriate steps to protect employees from potential exposure.   The rule requires that in settings where team members are not fully vaccinated, ALL team members must wear masks and remain socially distant, with very few exceptions, including, notably, if you are working alone in a room, or eating or drinking in the workplace and you are at least 6 feet away from any other person or separated by a physical barrier.

FULLY Vaccinated healthcare and support workers may dine and socialize together in break rooms and conduct in-person meetings, etc., without masks or physical distancing. 

The decision to provide all team members with a statement of our values (not “vaccinated” or “not vaccinated”) in the two colors (orange or blue) is intended to respect team members choice about (a) whether to vaccinate, and (b) whether to disclose they are vaccinated.  NO ONE is required to disclose that you are vaccinated or not vaccinated.  The color coding is strictly voluntary in that either you are vaccinated, and you wish to wear the blue, indicating you are vaccinated.  Or you are not vaccinated, OR do not wish to disclose whether you are vaccinated – in which case you can choose orange.  If you choose the orange, then you and anyone with whom you are in close proximity must wear a mask and adhere to the OSHA rules for prevention of potential spread of the virus.    

Ultimately, we are trying to ensure we comply with the federal rule, which was drafted as an emergency rule without the benefit of the typical input period where organizations like Ballad or our trade organizations may provide input to the agency on the impact of their rule.  We plan to provide our input at the time OSHA asks for it.

Thank you for your understanding.

Letter to Ballad Health employees from CEO Alan Levine

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