This story was updated Thursday, August 12, 2021, at 8:42 p.m. with more information.
CHI Memorial employees and staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 1 in order to keep their jobs, making the hospital system Chattanooga's first to require vaccines for employment.
CHI Memorial officials made the announcement via news release Thursday, calling the decision "an effort to continue protecting our patients, staff and communities from this dangerous disease."
The hospital already requires its approximately 4,600 workers to receive an annual flu shot as a condition of employment, which is standard throughout much of the health care industry.
The COVID-19 vaccine requirement includes all physicians, advanced practice providers, volunteers and others caring for patients within CHI Memorial facilities, according to the news release.
"As health care providers, we have a responsibility to help end this pandemic and protect our patients, our colleagues and those in our communities. Requiring vaccination for our teams is critical to maintaining a safe care environment. Medical and religious exemptions will be available for those who qualify," said a statement from CHI Memorial officials.
"Throughout the pandemic, CHI Memorial has implemented a broad range of safety measures to be able to continue providing essential health care services to everyone in our communities, including those battling life-threatening COVID-19 infections. Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again due to the threat of variants, and many communities continue to have low vaccination rates. Our decision to require the COVID-19 vaccination for our teams is rooted in a commitment to keeping our community safe — and bringing an end to this pandemic as quickly as possible," the statement continued.
CHI Memorial spokesperson Karen Long said health system officials estimate the majority of its staff is already vaccinated based on how many shots have been administered internally.
COVID-19 vaccines in the United States are all made available by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under "emergency use authorization," which means they've been thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy but have yet to achieve full FDA approval.
Though an increasing number of companies across the nation have begun implementing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, many local employers have stated they will not consider mandating COVID-19 vaccines in workers until the vaccines are fully approved.
However, it's likely that at least one vaccine will be approved before the Nov. 1 deadline for CHI Memorial employees.
The New York Times reported last week that Pfizer — which in May became the first company with a COVID-19 vaccine to file an application for FDA approval — could be granted approval around Labor Day. That article states that Pfizer's approval will "kick off a patchwork of vaccination mandates across the country" in places with mandates pending the final approval.
The timelines for approval of the two other vaccines now available in the U.S. is less clear. Moderna filed its application in June but was still submitting data to the FDA, and Johnson & Johnson plans to file its application later this year, according to the Times.
Tennessee's biggest health insurer, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, also announced Thursday plans to require the company's approximately 800 "public-facing" employees, such as nurses who conduct home and provider clinic visits, to be vaccinated no later than six weeks after a COVID-19 vaccine is granted full approval.
"We're also requiring vaccination of our executive team, including all vice presidents and above," BlueCross spokesperson John Hawbaker said via email. "This step further reassures our members that we're taking all the available precautions to keep them safe and healthy. We also believe it's important for our leadership team to stand in solidarity with these employees and to demonstrate our confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines."
Some nursing homes and senior living facilities in the Chattanooga area have already begun mandating their staff be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus to keep their jobs.
PruittHealth — which operates 20 nursing homes and senior centers in Georgia, including facilities in Fort Oglethorpe, LaFayette, Blue Ridge and Rome — and Elmcroft Senior Living — which operates more than 100 senior living centers, including local facilities on Shallowford Road and near Hamilton Place mall — are both requiring their employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus in an effort to curb the rising number of cases in the communities they serve.
Leaders at the health care companies cite low vaccination rates as the primary reason for the continued spread of COVID-19.
"One life lost to COVID-19 is too many, and as caregivers, we have a responsibility to look out for the health and well-being of this most vulnerable patient population, their families and the communities each of us calls home," Neil L. Pruitt Jr., chairman and CEO of PruittHealth, said.
Despite the growing popularity of vaccine mandates for workers, Chattanooga's two other major hospitals are still going to let their employees choose whether or not to take a COVID-19 shot, although they are strongly encouraging them to do so.
"Our infectious disease experts as well as those at the CDC are strongly encouraging vaccination as a critical step to protect individuals from the virus, but at this time our colleagues are not required to be vaccinated for COVID-19," Parkridge spokesperson Jamie Lawson said.
Erlanger Health System officials said in an emailed statement that COVID-19 vaccines are not required for employees at this time, and "leadership continues to closely monitor the health care landscape and follows industry-best practices for safety of our patients and employees."
"We strongly encourage everyone to seriously consider how they can contribute to minimizing the transmission of COVID-19 by properly socially distancing, wearing a mask, washing or sanitizing hands and getting vaccinated," Erlanger spokesperson Blaine Kelly said, adding that the hospital is "not disclosing specific employee vaccination rates publicly."
All three hospitals continue to require universal masking for workers, patients and visitors in any public spaces where people are in close contact with one another.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.
Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this report.