DuBOIS — Penn Highlands Healthcare officials, at Thursday’s media teleconference, addressed the vaccine mandate issued on Nov. 4 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“This mandate requires all healthcare workers in the United States to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4th, 2022,” said PHH Chief Operating Officer Mark Norman. “This federal mandate has a twofold purpose — to reduce the risk unvaccinated healthcare workers present to patient safety, and also to provide stability and uniformity among all U.S. healthcare systems.”

Norman said since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, PHH has followed all protocols and complied with all federal and state requirements regarding employee and patient safety.

“Since this vaccine became available last December, we have strongly encouraged everyone, from our employees to the people in the communities we serve, to protect themselves and others by getting this vaccine,” said Norman.

At this time, Norman said Penn Highlands Healthcare fully intends to comply with this federal mandate in all seven of their hospitals in DuBois, Brookville, Clearfield, St. Marys, Huntingdon, Tyrone and Monongahela, as well as their outpatient facilities, physician offices, home health agencies, and long-term care facilities all across their 39-county service areas.

He said this mandate will affect 5,654 employees, 740 physicians and 374 advanced providers across the PHH system.

“Healthcare is one of the most regulated industries in this country, failure to comply with the mandate would jeopardize our participation in federal government programs like Medicare and Medicaid,” said Norman. “To put this in general terminology or layman’s terms, if we do not comply, they will stop reimbursing us for patients we care for who have Medicare and Medicaid insurance — which, at this time, currently represents about 66 percent of our net revenue across our health system. This will lead to less staff and less individuals we can care for across this great state.”

Norman said if PHH fails to comply with the CMS mandate, “it will put all of their hospitals at risk of closure, to the fines and penalties to which we will be subjected to. In addition, if we fail to comply with the federal mandate, everyone stands to lose, not just our employees and patients, but everyone in our communities.”

For example, Norman said in 2020, the total impact of their health system’s seven hospitals on the Pennsylvania economy was nearly $1.6 billion. The hospital spending includes employee salaries, wages, and other benefits, as well as the goods and services needed to provide healthcare services and support the hospital’s operations.

“This ripple effect within all of our hospitals indirectly impact the economy through business interaction with other industries — for example, when our employees use their wages to spend money locally, whether it be on food, gas or entertainment,” said Norman.

However, said Norman, PHH’s reasons for complying with the federal mandate go beyond avoiding the fines, penalties and potential closure of their hospitals.

“COVID-19 continues to make people ill, particularly unvaccinated people,” he said. “The COVID-19 vaccine, as it stands today, is our best defense in this pandemic.”

PHH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Cameron, echoing Norman’s comments, said, “People are still becoming seriously sick with COVID-19. Many are being hospitalized, and we are seeing many deaths from the infection.”

Currently, Cameron said PHH has a total of 109 patients in their seven hospitals with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19; 13 on ventilators; and four patients have died in the past day.

“One of the best ways everyone, our employees, physicians, and the people in our communities, can protect themselves and each other is through the vaccinations,” said Cameron.

Cameron said more than 432 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been safely given in the U.S. since Dec. 14, 2020, through Nov. 8, 2021.

“Across Penn Highlands Health System, we’ve given more than 125,000 doses of the vaccine,” said Cameron. “Under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history, the vaccines met the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support approval for authorization of a vaccine, which brings me to why we are here today.”

Cameron clarified that there are two federal mandates.

He said one was issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and covers companies with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated. The OSHA mandate offers a weekly testing option for those who do not want to get vaccinated.

The other mandate, issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), requires healthcare workers to get vaccinated with no option of weekly testing.

“The CMS mandate is the one that health systems are required to follow, including Penn Highlands,” said Cameron. “According to the CMS mandate, all staff must be fully vaccinated, two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by Jan. 4, 2022. As we said earlier, per the government mandate, weekly COVID-19 tests are not an option for healthcare workers who do not want the vaccine. The federal vaccine mandates applies to all employees, union and non-union, throughout our health system.

“In addition, it applies to all individuals who conduct business with the health system, including non-employed physicians, students, volunteers, vendors, consultants, delivery personnel, drug reps, etc.,” said Cameron. “It includes practically anyone who walks through our doors except patients and their families.”

Cameron said employees who are not fully vaccinated by Jan. 3, 2022 will be placed on unpaid administrative leave for 45 days with the hope that they will change their mind and get vaccinated.

After 45 days without getting vaccinated, per the mandate, they will no longer be permitted to work at Penn Highlands, said Cameron.

Employees may seek exceptions to the federal mandate based on medical conditions or recognized religious beliefs. All requests for medical or religious exemptions will be reviewed by a designated panel of medical and religious professionals.

“We are trying to make it as convenient as possible for unvaccinated employees and physicians to get their vaccine,” said Cameron. “We set up employee vaccine clinics throughout the system, and employees are also welcome to attend the community clinics we have scheduled.”

Cameron emphasized that the CMS mandate does not apply to patients and their families.

“However, they are strongly encouraged to be vaccinated. And according to PA regulations, you must wear your mask when in a healthcare facility,” said Cameron.

The officials also answered questions submitted in writing by the media prior to the press conference. Some of them included:

What is the current vaccination rate among employees?

“We have scheduled employee vaccination clinics across the health system, and we are encouraging our employees who were not vaccinated to visit one of these clinics or any of the community clinics we are hosting,” said Cameron. “At the end of October, our employee vaccination rate was 66 percent.”

How many staff members still are not fully vaccinated for COVID-19?

Cameron said currently there are 1,922 employees who are not fully vaccinated across the health care system. At Penn Highlands DuBois, which has approximately 2,200 employees, 70 percent are fully vaccinated at this time.

How many of those staff members might qualify for medical or religious exemptions?

“We published the religious and medical exemption request policy and forms late last week,” said Cameron. “So far, we have received approximately 30 requests for religious exemptions and two for medical exemptions. At this time, because it’s still too early in the process, it is impossible for us to predict how many employees may qualify in the end.” He said PHH plans to process the request as quickly and efficiently as possible, with a virtual panel of medical and religious personnel processing the requests weekly.

Are employees required to get any other vaccines?

“No. Penn Highland’s employees are not required to receive other vaccines, but they are strongly encouraged to get the annual flu shot. Any employee who does not get to flu shot is required to wear a mask at all times,” said Cameron.

It sounds like the mandate will apply to an even wider group, to include those who conduct business with the health system. Do you have an estimate of how many people are subject to the mandate in relation to Penn Highlands Healthcare?

“Systemwide, Penn Highlands Healthcare is comprised of 5,654 employees, 740 physicians and 374 advanced practice providers,” said Norman. “All of our employees, physicians and advanced practice providers are subject to the mandate. We also have approximately 300 companies that we do business with that may have their employees coming in and out of our organization. But we do not have the exact number of those people at this time.”

How many employees do you anticipate losing because of the vaccine mandate across the health system? How many at PH DuBois?

“It really is too early to speculate that and to predict the number of employees we may lose because of this mandate,” said Norman.

How do you plan to address the staff shortages that will occur as a result of this vaccine mandate, especially at a time when Penn Highlands is in need of employees, due to the expansion and plans for being a trauma center?

“We want to keep our workforce with us, of course, and we want our employees to be vaccinated and be safe,” said Norman. “In addition, Penn Highlands wants to recruit individuals who come to us knowing that we were following mandates and guidelines to keep them safe. We are continuously working on staffing contingency plans across our health system.”

What is your contingency plan for keeping product moving through the hospital if delivery personnel are not vaccinated?

“We’re currently monitoring the situation and developing our various contingency plans across the health system,” Norman said.

Is Penn Highlands Healthcare aware of the planned protest rally that’s taking place on Friday? What are officials expecting and how will it be handled? Any comments on the protest?

“Yes, we’re aware of the proposed protest,” said Norman. “This mandate is from the federal government and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. We understand why the CMS mandate has people upset and frustrated. We certainly understand that. However, Penn Highlands believes in the vaccine and we are encouraging our employees to get the vaccine. If Penn Highlands does not comply with this mandate, our communities stand to lose access to high quality healthcare, because our health system will lose 66 percent of our net revenue, and then a lot of people would lose jobs. This would cripple the economies of the communities that we serve, where we have our local hospitals. We are educating our employees through internal communications since this is a federal mandate, which we must follow, and advising employees who may be upset to reach out to their U.S. senators and representatives.”

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