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UM Shore Regional Health staff refusing mandatory COVID vaccines face unpaid leave, potential resignation

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EASTON — Staff members working for the University of Maryland Shore Regional Health system were set to be placed on unpaid leave starting Friday, Oct. 1, and will eventually face the loss of their jobs if they don’t comply with the health care system’s vaccine mandate.

Health care workers and community members in the Mid-Shore region who are against the mandated vaccination have taken to the streets, local meetings and social media to spread awareness for what they deem to be an unfair condition of employment. The morning prior to the mandate going into effect, about a dozen employees and supporters stood outside UM Shore Medical Center at Easton to convey their dismay with the policy.

In a meeting Sept. 28 with the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners, UM Shore Regional Health President and CEO Ken Kozel spoke about the challenges of getting holdout employees vaccinated and making sure they are aware of the system’s expectations and the ramifications of their decisions.

“It’s a privilege to work in health care and provide health care,” Kozel told the commissioners. “But with that privilege, I believe, comes responsibility ... and that’s why the mandate exists.”

Kozel said that as of Sept. 28, there were 150 people receiving inpatient care for COVID-19 throughout the entire University of Maryland Medical System, UM Shore Regional Health’s parent organization. He said about 25% of COVID patients are in intensive care units and another 25% are on ventilators.

Locally, UM Shore Regional Health is seeing between five and 10 COVID-related admissions per day, primarily in the Easton hospital, Kozel said.

In a statement issued Saturday, Oct. 2, UMMS President and CEO Dr. Mohan Suntha issued a statement saying that 98% of clinical staff and 96% of all employees are in “full compliance” with the mandatory vaccination requirement.

He said the system will work over the next 30 days to get those unvaccinated team members currently on administrative leave vaccinated and back to work.

“In health care, keeping our patients and colleagues as safe as possible is our first and highest responsibility, and the overwhelming body of scientific evidence tells us that vaccines are one of the most effective tools we have to prevent infection, hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” Suntha said.

Concerns first arose in early June after UMMS announced the vaccine requirement. A UMMS news release explained that all staff members across the system who were not vaccinated by Sept. 1 were required to participate in weekly COVID testing at no cost to the individual.

Staff members who did not receive their vaccination, an approved exemption — religious or medical — or a temporary deferral for pregnancy by Oct. 1 are now considered to be non-compliant with the system’s COVID policy.

UM Shore Regional Health will be enforcing UMMS’s administrative procedures for non-compliance, which include written warnings and unpaid administrative leave for a period of 30 days or until the staff member complies with the policy, whichever comes first.

Staff members who don’t comply with the policy by the end of the 30-day period are considered to have resigned from their position, said Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesperson for UMMS.

Health care workers at the UM Shore Medical Center in Easton advised that earlier in the week, their superiors within the hospital gave them a rough number of 250 employees that will be affected by the new policy. UM Shore Regional Health initially did not confirm the exact number of employees that will be placed on administrative leave starting on Oct. 1.

But the hospital later said on Oct. 1 there were about 50 unvaccinated employees on staff. Hospital officials also point out there are COVID vaccine mandates for health care workers issued by the state of Maryland and Biden administration.

UMMS issued their statement on vaccination requirements for employees on June 9 — two months prior to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Aug. 18 announcement that all hospital employees statewide were required to be vaccinated by Sept. 1 or submit to weekly testing.

Local hospital staff members against the mandate have expressed frustrations and sadness toward their employer for their stance on the mandate. A longtime health care worker within the UM Shore Regional Health system, who asked to not be named, said that she feels that the staff members’ questions on the mandate and choice to make their own medical decisions had not been honored by hospital administration.

“Our issue is that we’ve had a lot of questions asked about the vaccine and about the mandate, and we’ve not gotten those questions answered,” she said. “We are being forced to get the vaccine or lose our jobs.”

The health care worker told The Star Democrat that hospital administration tells their staff that the vaccine is safe, effective and “our way to end this pandemic.” However, when staff members brought up concerns about the vaccine not being as safe or as effective as originally perceived, they’re told that they’re hearing false information or that they don’t believe in science — even though they do, she said.

She pointed out that a lot of information about adverse effects, such as sickness or heart issues from the vaccine, is not being given to the general public.

The Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS), a CDC and FDA-managed website, tracks adverse events reported by health care professionals and vaccine manufacturers. It also tracks self-reported adverse events submitted by individuals who have received vaccines.

“None of us are anti-vax, that is not what this is about,” the worker said of her fellow protesting colleagues. “This is about an anti-mandate; we don’t want to be mandated to take a vaccine that we don’t feel comfortable with yet, and that’s what’s happening.”

UMMS employees more than 29,500 workers statewide.

There are about 750 employees throughout the UMMS who have not complied with the organization’s COVID vaccine mandate. Those employees are on administrative leave, according to Schwartzberg. He said 60% of the unvaccinated staff members work eight hours or less a week.

In a statement issued Thursday, Sept. 30, UM Shore Regional Health spokesperson Trena Williamson said that health care workers in the system are “held to a higher standard” in service to the vulnerable patients in their care.

The health care system is not losing hope for their non-compliant employees.

Williamson said that they value all of their staff members and consider them to be UM Shore Regional Health’s “greatest asset.” Vaccination clinics with the choice of all three vaccines will continue to be offered for hospital staff, and the system will continue to work with team members to abide by this new policy, she said.

The health care worker also pointed out that even individuals who are fully vaccinated can spread COVID, get sick or die from the virus, just like the unvaccinated. However, regardless of vaccination status, she said that every staff member in her hospital is still employing the same universal precautions against COVID: wearing a N95 mask, a surgical mask, eye protection and gloves.

“We’re still hand washing and we’re still doing all of those things, staying home if you’re sick, and you know, I’m not sure what more we could do,” she said.

In his statement Oct. 2, Suntha said vaccinations also reduce and prevent employee absences due to illness and quarantine “and have proven to be a very important stabilizing force in helping to keep team members at work, in our hospitals, caring for our patients.”

“By far, the biggest challenge facing UMMS and all hospitals are the large numbers of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients we are caring for across our state. This is why we urge Marylanders to become fully vaccinated as soon as possible. Doing so is an act of compassion and selflessness that will allow our incredible nurses, doctors and other care providers to stay focused on safely providing the best possible care to every patient in our System,” Suntha said.

Additional reporting by Luke Parker and Daniel Divilio.

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