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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / BlueCross BlueShield headquarters in Chattanooga on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.

This story was updated at 5:48 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021 with more information.

Tennessee's biggest health insurer has terminated 19 of its front-line employees for refusing to get vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee said Thursday that it gave about 900 workers whose jobs involve in-person contact with BlueCross members, outside businesses or community groups until Oct. 4 to receive the vaccine or request a medical or religious accommodation about why they would not be vaccinated.

"Unfortunately, 19 employees chose not to get vaccinated and are no longer with the company," BlueCross Senior Vice President Dalya Qualls said in a statement Thursday. "We appreciate their service to our members and communities throughout their time with BlueCross, and we wish them well in the future."

BlueCross is one of Chattanooga's largest employers with about 6,400 employees companywide, including more than 4,500 in the Chattanooga area. Most are still working remotely and are not yet required to get the COVID-19 vaccine. About 70% of all BlueCross workers are now fully vaccinated, company spokesman John Hawbaker said Thursday.

"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we've focused on a simple goal: protecting the health of BlueCross employees while continuing to meet the needs of our members," Qualls said.

BlueCross has offered time off and other incentives to encourage its workers to be vaccinated, and the company adopted its vaccine mandate for front-line workers once the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval of the Pfizer vaccine in August. BlueCross gave workers six weeks to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine or seek accommodations for a religious or medical objection to the shot.

Qualls said BlueCross received and evaluated several dozen requests for medical or religious accommodation.

"Each employee then had the decision to accept or decline our proposed accommodation," she said. "Numerous employees did accept, while some chose to decline. While we respect our employee's views and beliefs, we must take every available safety precaution when employees visit members or providers, or go into the community, on our behalf."

Qualls said the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for front-line workers is similar to the measles vaccine mandate the company adopted two years ago when there was an outbreak of measles.

While the majority of workers for employers mandating the vaccine are getting vaccinated, some are choosing to leave their jobs rather than getting the shots. United Airlines told its 67,000 U.S. employees in August that they must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by this fall, and ultimately 320 employees were fired for not getting the vaccine and another 2,000 workers sought exemptions.

 

Employer mandates grow

Federal employees, including nearly 10,000 workers at the Tennessee Valley Authority, also will be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or claim a religious or medical exemption by Nov. 22 to keep their jobs under regulations proposed by President Joe Biden. Biden has directed all federal agencies to require their staffs to be vaccinated and has told the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to draft rules to require all private employers with over 100 workers to mandate vaccines or require weekly COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated workers.

Although OSHA is still drafting its vaccine rules, the White House issued a report Wednesday that found that more than 3,500 organizations already require vaccinations, and thousands more will require vaccinations in the weeks ahead. Vaccination requirements are in place at 25% of businesses, 40% of hospitals and colleges and universities serving 37% of all graduate and undergraduate students, the White House report said.

"Vaccination requirements work," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during her daily briefing Wednesday. "Vaccination requirements get more people vaccinated, helping to end the pandemic and strengthen the economy."

Others are more skeptical. In response to TVA's vaccine mandate, nuclear contractor Jacob Bianculli launched an online petition urging TVA to rescind its mandate. As of Thursday afternoon, the petition had been signed by more than 1,100 people.

"I believe that receiving the COVID-19 vaccination should be a personal choice and not a decision of TVA," the petition states.

 

Debate over vaccines

Delores Sowders, one of the petition signers urging TVA to drop the mandate, said "getting the vaccine should be a personal choice" and not a requirement from the federal government.

"There are too many unanswered questions about the vaccine and its potential side effects," she wrote in a comment attached to the Change.org petition. "By mandating the vaccine, I believe TVA and other government agencies are taking on an unnecessary liability and no doubt putting some individuals at risk for potential life-altering consequences, maybe even death."

The FDA gave its final approval to the Pfizer vaccine in August. Vaccine proponents insist that the health risks of contracting the virus far exceed any potential negative health effects from taking the vaccine. Since January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, more than 97% of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States have been among unvaccinated people.

 

Employer approaches differ

CHI Memorial, one of Chattanooga's biggest hospitals with nearly 4,600 employees and hundreds of other volunteers and medical support staff, is requiring all workers and volunteers to be vaccinated by Nov. 1.

Other local employers with vaccine mandates now or in the near future include AT&T, McCallie School, the Husch Blackwell law firm, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center, Thinking Media, A-1 Barricades, Bridge Financial Planning, LLC, Chicken-w-Bones, Claridy Communications, The Enterprise Center, Izell Marketing Group, Latitude Advisors and Zi Olive on the North Shore, according to the Healthy Chattanooga Coalition, formed to encourage more COVID-19 vaccinations.

But most of the major employers signing on to the Healthy Chattanooga Coalition are urging their workers to get vaccinated voluntarily. Many are offering pay or time off to do so, but a majority of major employers in Chattanooga are not mandating vaccines, at least so far.

On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Department of Health announced that 50% of the county's adults have now been fully vaccinated for the coronavirus.

"I am so proud of our community for joining together to get vaccinated to protect one another," Hamilton County Health Department Interim Health Officer Dr. Fernando Urrego said. "To continue this good news, we still need many more people to get vaccinated to stop transmission and protect all of our residents. We recommend that all who are eligible get vaccinated."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

 

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