Many of Chattanooga's biggest employers are banding together in a new Healthy Chattanooga Coalition to help boost vaccination levels in the region up to at least 60% by December.
A coalition of 26 major employers announced Tuesday they will encourage, incentivize and, in some instances, mandate employees to be vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus to help vaccinate more people to help reverse the recent rise in infections that recently made Tennessee the No. 1 state for COVID-19 infections.
Despite recent increases in the number of persons being vaccinated each day, the Tennessee Department of Health reports that only 47.4% of Hamilton County's population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus more than seven months after vaccines first became available. Chattanooga continues to lag the nation in the share of persons who are vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.
"We must get to a higher vaccination level and we're really excited about what we can do in this community to achieve that," said Mary Lambert, the newly appointed director of community health for the city of Chattanooga.
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly thanked the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce for organizing the coalition and "stepping up to help keep our community safe.
"Getting Chattanooga vaccinated is essential to our city's economic recovery and that's exactly what the Healthy Chattanooga Coalition is organized to encourage," Kelly said.
Five local companies, including CHI Memorial Hospital and McCallie School, are requiring all of their workers to get vaccinated by November. CHI Memorial President Janelle Reilly said the vaccine "is the most effective tool to prevent the spread of the virus and its effects."
"It's also important for our whole community to be increasing the vaccine rate," said Reilly, who announced on Aug. 12 a vaccine mandate or testing mandate for Memorial Hospital employees by Nov. 1. "It helps us to accomplish population or herd immunity and that is the most important way to stop this virus. It's about each of us doing our part to protect our family, our Friends and our neighbors."
But most of the employers are offering incentives, rather than requiring their workers to get the vaccine. Eric Fuller, president of the U.S. Xpress Enterprises, said he is eager to boost the vaccination rate but currently the trucking industry is struggling to get and maintain enough drivers and a vaccine mandate is not yet feasible.
"We would like to have a vaccine mandate and we considered that, but if you look at our workforce, we have a lot of drivers who unfortunately are in a demographic and location that that does not have a high level of vaccination so we determined that mandating vaccines was probaably not the answer for us," Fuller said during a podcast Tuesday about the new Health Chattanooga Coalition. "There are a lot of ways to incentivize people and encourage them to get vaccinated."
Fuller said many employers are giving bonuses, time off of work or restricting special events for only vaccinated workers.
President Biden has proposed mandating all employers with more than 100 workers require their workers to either be vaccinated or tested for the COVID-19 virus every week and he has directed the Occupational Safety and Health Adminnistrationto draft rules for such a mandate. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has sharply criticized such a government mandate, claiming it is unconstitutional.
While the OSHA drafts new regulations- and the courts potentially decide on their legality - Chattanooga Chamber President Christy Gillenwater said city, Chamber of business leaders decided to launch a community effort to encourage vaccines in whatever way is best for each company.
Barry Ruffalo, president and CEO of Astec Industries, Inc, said he believes his business "has a responsibility to mitigate the risk to our employees by ensuring a safe work environment.
"Vaccinations and masks are the best tools we have in the fight against COVID–19," he said.
Thomas Ozburn, president and CEO of Parkridge Health System, said the doctors and other clinical care workers taking care of COVID patients "strongly support the vaccine.
"They have studied the science behind it and it is safe and effective," Ozburn said. "The likelihood of getting seriously ill, becoming hospitalized or even dying as a result of COVID-19 is greatly diminished for those who are fully vaccinated."
The coalition attracted businesses from nearly every sector, including such major employers as BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Unum, Volkswagen, Lodge Manufacturing, First Horizon Bank and Elder's Ace Hardware, among others
But the initial coalition is still only a small share of the 1,700 business members of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce and does not include Chattanooga's biggest hospital, Erlanger Health System.
The Coalition will work within three tiers of choice to encourage employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
More information about the coalition is available at www.chattanoogachamber.com/hcc.
Tier 3: Require all employees to be vaccinated
Bridge Financial Planning, LLC, Chicken-w-Bones, CHI Memorial, Izell Marketing Group and McCallie School
Tier 2: Offers incentives for employees to get vaccinated and support employees through the process
Astec, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, CBL Properties, Inc, Chattanooga Gas, Elder's Ace Hardware, First Horizon Bank, Galen Medical Group, Lodge Cast Iron, Parkridge Health System, Tennessee Aquarium, Thompson Engineering, Inc., U.S. Xpress Enterprises, Inc., Vision Hospitality Group, Inc. Volkswagen Group of America Chattanooga, Wingard Quality Supply
Tier 1: Encourage all of employees to get vaccinated and provide support through the process
Baker Donelson, Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, P.C., One to One Health, Rise Partners, The Sasha Group and Unum
Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340.