NEW BEDFORD — Southcoast Health terminated 216 employees Tuesday for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate that went into effect for more than 7,500 workers on Nov. 15.

The loss comprises 2.9% of the workforce at the region’s largest private employer and brings the hospital group into compliance with President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for 17 million health care workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs. 

The vaccination rate for Southcoast Health’s staff is now 96.6%, according to data that a hospital spokesperson provided to The Light. It has been two weeks since employees were required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and 7,102 have done so. Another 151 received medical or religious exemptions and will be tested regularly, said Southcoast Health spokesperson Kaitlyn Cox. 

Those placed on unpaid leave last month for failing to comply were granted an extension until Friday, Nov. 26, to submit proof of at least one dose. Some 102 employees accepted the opportunity and returned to work on Monday partially vaccinated, Cox said. They must agree to regular testing until they complete their full vaccination.

The toll of the terminations this week lands across the ranks of Southcoast’s three hospitals — St. Luke’s in New Bedford, Charlton Memorial in Fall River and Tobey Hospital in Wareham, as well as Southcoast Behavioral Health psychiatric hospital in Dartmouth. The lost employees bring unwelcome pressure to a hospital system already grappling with low staffing levels and surging admissions. 

Deb Falk, one of about 125 emergency nurses at St. Luke’s Hospital, said the emergency department has been dealing with back-ups of patients who have been admitted into the hospital but have to wait for a bed to become available. She said the number of patients with psychiatric needs has ballooned beyond the hospital’s seven-bed locked unit, which sometimes leads to patients wandering dangerously through the halls.

“I’ve been here for 37 years,” said Falk, who is also a co-chair of the RN bargaining committee at St. Luke’s. “It’s overwhelming for me some days.”

She said there’s been a high turnover of nurses in every department during the pandemic that has little to do with the vaccine mandate. “Our 12-hour nurses are sometimes mandated to stay 16 hours,” she said. “We don’t have time to eat. I found nurses crying in the lounge. Our nurses feel broken.”

By the numbers

Statistics on vaccinations at Southcoast Health as of Dec. 2, 2021
  • 216 terminations
  • 7,102 employees fully vaccinated
  • 102 employees received at least one dose and will be tested until fully vaccinated
  • 151 employees granted exemptions and tested at least weekly
  • 7,355 in compliance + 216 terminations = 7,571 employees total
  • 7102/7355 = 96.6% vaccination rate
  • 216/7571 = 2.9% of workforce lost

The most recent national hospital data shows 87.6% of beds occupied in Southcoast Health’s facilities, the highest number yet this fall. ICU beds were 96.4% occupied during the week ending Nov. 19.

Many hospitals in Massachusetts currently have similar or even higher bed occupancy rates. Patients have been returning to hospitals this summer and fall for procedures that were postponed earlier in the pandemic, and the admissions continued even as COVID-19 cases rose in New England. 

This week, Massachusetts hospitals are reducing non-essential scheduled procedures and taking other steps to preserve hospital beds for those with acute conditions like COVID-19 and influenza. The measures are part of a public health order that Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week in an effort to prevent the worst outcomes, should hospital capacity continue to narrow in Massachusetts. 

Health care workers across the Bay State are also facing similar vaccine requirements, with deadlines in early and mid-October for major hospital systems like Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey. 

Hospitals, nursing homes and certain other health care facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs have until Jan. 4, 2022 to comply with President Biden’s vaccine policy, which requires all staff to be fully vaccinated. It includes clinical and nonclinical workers, licensed physicians, trainees, students and volunteers. Health care facilities must develop their own testing and physical distancing plans for employees with recognized medical or religious exemptions.

Over the summer, 70 Massachusetts hospitals, including Southcoast Health, acted jointly to endorse mandatory vaccinations for hospital workers, issuing a policy statement through the industry group, the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, in July. The action came well before the president’s September announcement of plans for a federal vaccine policy regulated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Southcoast Health employees were among the first people vaccinated in the region when shipments of COVID-19 vaccines began arriving in Massachusetts in December last year. 

Keith A. Hovan, Southcoast Health president and CEO, penned a letter to employees in July announcing plans for a policy requiring all employees, providers and staff to be vaccinated pending full FDA approval of COVID-19 vaccines. 

Southcoast has proceeded with those plans roughly along the lines outlined over the summer, continuing outreach to employees about the impending vaccine deadline, even as Hovan stepped down on Nov. 12, following his arrest for alleged domestic assault and battery earlier this month. The jolt to the hospital group’s leadership came days before the vaccine requirement went into effect. 

“The deadline for COVID-19 vaccination at Southcoast Health was Monday, Nov. 15,” said Southcoast Health spokesperson Cox in an emailed statement. 

“Southcoast Health is proud that the overwhelming majority of employees were in compliance before the deadline, and that our organization is now close to 98 percent compliance. As with the flu shot, documented religious and medical exemptions have been granted after review in very limited circumstances. All unvaccinated employees without approved exemptions have not been allowed onsite since Nov. 16.

“We have provided substantial education and resources on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. In addition, our primary care physicians and specialists have been readily available to answer questions and concerns.”

Southcoast operates the sixth-largest health care system in Massachusetts, according to annual patient discharge data. It’s among the highest High Public Payer Hospitals in the state. In 2019, Southcoast received 74.9 percent of its patient revenue from government payers and free care.

About 850 Southcoast nurses are members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, including some 150 at Tobey Hospital in Wareham and another 700 at St. Luke’s. Other Southcoast Health employees at Tobey are members of Service Employees International Union Local 1199. 

Joe Markman, associate communications director for MNA, said members have been talking to each other about vaccine mandates and discussing aspects of the implementation with management, but Massachusetts hospital vaccine mandates have not been part of union contract negotiations.

In September, the MNA board of directors wrote in a statement: “MNA supports requiring FDA approved COVID vaccinations for health care workers subject to religious and medical exemptions, as well as focused attention to mitigating systemic barriers to access and widespread adoption.”

SEIU-1199 also wrote a position statement on vaccine mandates on Nov. 1. The union stated: “At this juncture, vaccination is not simply an option, it’s mandatory — and for good reason — because as health care workers, our actions have a greater impact on public health than any other workforce sector. After all we have seen over the last year and a half, we owe it to our patients, our co-workers, and our communities to get vaccinated.”

Email Abigail Nehring at anehring@newbedfordlight.org.


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