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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse Carla Upchurch administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the Tennessee Riverpark on Tuesday, September 28, 2021. The Hamilton County Health Department continues to administer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Tennessee Riverpark location.

Within the next eight weeks, more than 10,000 employees and contractors of the Tennessee Valley Authority will have to be vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus unless they have a religious objection to such vaccines.

TVA said it is following the rules for all federal employees to receive the coronavirus vaccine by Nov. 22 unless workers are able to establish a religious objection to such vaccines. Although TVA is an independent federal corporation governed by its own board of directors, TVA President Jeff Lyash said TVA determined it was covered by the federal mandate and must begin enforcing the new rules by the week of Thanksgiving.

Lyash said TVA will offer incentives to workers to encourage those who are not yet vaccinated to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"This lowers our lost productivity and lowers our medical costs so we can share that back with our employees," Lyash said. "How will we deal with people who elect not to be vaccinated? We haven't worked all that detail out yet, but we wanted to let our people know this [vaccine mandate] was coming and now we'll collaborate with our workers and fill in the details."

Similar vaccine mandates have led workers to quit their jobs at other employers rather than get the vaccine.

United Airlines said Wednesday it would terminate about 600 employees for refusing to comply with its vaccination requirement. But the airline also said 99% of its U.S. workforce of 67,000 had been vaccinated, a sign mandates can be effective in boosting vaccination rates.

Lyash said he is worried about some workers who might not want to be vaccinated and may opt to retire or quit from TVA.

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Staff file photo / The Tennessee Valley Authority building in downtown Chattanooga is shown in 2016.

"I am concerned about it, but we're going to work our way through it.," he said. "I hope we don't lose a single employee here because I think we have such a great workforce. But at the same time, we recognize we need to act on the orders from the White House and the government and we need to protect the health and safety of our workforce."

Last month, President Joe Biden said he would soon mandate all federal employees and contractors, including nearly all health care workers, and businesses with 100 or more workers require their staff to be vaccinated or face weekly testing.

On Sept. 9, Biden signed an executive order requiring most federal employees and federal contractors to get the COVID-19 vaccine, removing the option for them to instead undergo regular testing. The anticipated emergency temporary standard for private-sector employers with at least 100 employees — requiring vaccination or testing — has not yet been released.

"This is not about freedom or personal choice, it's about protecting yourself and those around you," Biden said when he announced the coming mandates.

But Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Attorney General Herbert Slatery insist such mandates are unconstitutional and counterproductive. Lee called Biden's move "cynical" and "divisive" during a pandemic that requires people to work together.

"The Constitution won't allow this power grab, and in the meantime, I will stand up for all Tennesseans," Lee said in a post on Twitter. "'This is not about freedom' is a phrase that should never come out of a U.S. President's mouth."

In a letter to Biden, Slatery said, "Our office is working with other state officials to review and evaluate the President's new plan. It will take some time. The Labor Department's rule has not even been written; the Executive Orders are complex; and frankly, I have my doubts that anyone knows the true ramifications of his actions at this point."

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Tennessee attorney general's letter to President Biden

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Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said Wednesday that masks and vaccinations "from a medical standpoint, they are an effective tool."

But she added that "there's not a lot of appetite for mandates — essentially none, for government mandates.

"I don't know how that's all going to come out in the wash, with all of the challenges to the federal mandates that have been announced," she said.

Piercey said she is worried about the unintended consequences of vaccine mandates as a condition of employment, "particularly in areas that are already short staffed." But she said such decisions are not part of the state health department's purview.

Most of Chattanooga's major employers are not yet mandating vaccines, although many are encouraging their workers to get vaccinated and are providing them time off and bonuses to do so.

Prior to the TVA vaccine mandate, CHI Memorial Hospital was the largest employer in Chattanooga to mandate vaccines with a requirement for all employees to be vaccinated by Nov. 1 unless they have a religious exemption to vaccines. The hospital said a majority of its staff is now fully vaccinated.

"We do have employees who have applied for a medical or religious exemption, and we are processing those exemption forms,' CHI Memorial spokeswoman Karen Long said. "Hospitals across the country who require the vaccine, including CHI Memorial, will have people leave We do not want to see anyone leave. The primary purpose for requiring the COVID-19 vaccine is for the safety of our patients, visitors, and employees."

Long said "vaccination is the most effective and successful way to protect against COVID-19, to slow the spread, to prevent future variants, and to stop the pandemic."

On Wednesday, AT&T announced it was extending its coronavirus vaccination requirement to tens of thousands of employees who are members of the Communications Workers of America union. Unionized workers who enter work locations and client or customer sites, or who are temporarily working from home, must be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1 unless they qualify for an accommodation, the company said.

AT&T previously announced that most managers must be vaccinated by Oct. 11.

The health insurer Cigna, which has about 1,700 employees in the Chattanooga area, began requiring employees who work remotely to be fully vaccinated before entering any U.S. worksite after Sept. 7. Cigna employees whose roles can only be performed on-site, such as medical care providers, pharmacists, pharmacy home delivery specialists, and others, must be fully vaccinated or receive two negative COVID-19 tests per week, beginning Oct. 18, before entering their work site.

"It's clear we need to do more to stop the ongoing spread of COVID-19, and unlike many aspects of the pandemic, keeping our work sites as safe as possible is something we can control," said Dr. Steve Miller, chief clinical officer of Cigna.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, the largest private employer in Chattanooga with nearly 5,000 local workers, and Erlanger Health System, Chattanooga's biggest public employer with more than 7,000 employees, have yet to mandate vaccines for their staff but they are encouraging workers to get vaccinated.

"We're continuing to educate our employees and encourage them to get vaccinated," BlueCross spokesman John Hawbaker said. "As of this week 68% of all employees are fully vaccinated, and 78% of our FlexOffice workers are vaccinated."

At Erlanger, hospital spokeswoman Blaine Kelley said Erlanger has yet to receive specific information about the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

"We have not made this vaccine a condition of employment for our staff but do encourage and support our staff in choosing to get vaccinated," she said.

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

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