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Most Virginia hospitals and nursing homes aren’t mandating COVID-19 vaccines for their employees

‘Underlying reluctance is more likely due to how it’s going to affect staffing’
Physicians with the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke wear enhanced personal protective equipment...
Physicians with the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke wear enhanced personal protective equipment inside the health system’s facilities.(Carilion Clinic)
Published: Aug. 23, 2021 at 12:49 PM EDT
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For the third time in just over a year, Ballad Health is suspending many of its elective surgeries, citing a new surge of coronavirus cases that have left its hospitals overwhelmed.

As serious infections have risen across the region, driven by low immunization rates and the aggressive Delta variant, the system’s administrators have begged more residents to get vaccinated. But so far, Ballad — which serves much of southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee — has avoided requiring the shots for its own workers.

“Of course we have encouraged it from the beginning in December when they became available,” said Lisa Smithgall, the health system’s chief nursing executive. “And we continue to foster communication on an ongoing basis. But as of today, we don’t have a vaccine mandate for our team members.”

Ballad is far from alone. While some major hospital systems in Virginia have introduced employee vaccine requirements — including Inova in Northern Virginia, VCU Health in Richmond and Valley Health in the northwestern corner of the state — the majority of Virginia’s roughly 27 health systems are not currently mandating vaccinations for their employees. Those include major players such as Sentara, HCA and Bon Secours, which together operate more than two dozen hospitals across the state.

The same is true for many of Virginia’s long-term care facilities, which account for nearly 30 percent of outbreaks and roughly 36 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, according to data from the state Department of Health. Neither LeadingAge Virginia nor the Virginia Health Care Association-Virginia Center for Assisted Living, which represent hundreds of nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state, could say how many of their members have adopted the policies.

But Dr. Jim Wright, the medical director for Westminster Canterbury and Our Lady of Hope in Richmond, said employee vaccine requirements are still rare throughout much of the industry

“In conversations with other medical directors, vaccine mandates are definitely in the minority in nursing homes in Virginia,” he said. “Westminster Canterbury, for example, is one of the only facilities I’ve heard of recently that has put that requirement in place.”

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