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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / CHI Memorial is seen from Missionary Ridge on Friday, March 27, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With the deadline three days away, less than 1% of CHI Memorial employees have resigned so far as a result of the health system's COVID-19 vaccine requirement, officials said.

The health system has about 4,600 associates and more than 600 affiliated physicians across Southeast Tennessee, North Georgia and Northwest Alabama, according to a news release. Based on those numbers, less than 1% would mean fewer than 52.

CHI Memorial is the only hospital in Chattanooga to implement a COVID-19 vaccine requirement. The hospital announced in August that all workers must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1 in order to keep their jobs.

As of Thursday, 98% of employees had responded to the health system's vaccination status survey used to monitor compliance, according to spokesperson Karen Long.

The requirement applies to all physicians, advanced practice providers, volunteers and others caring for patients within CHI Memorial facilities. Exemptions are allowed for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs.

Long said 83% of the religious and medical exemptions submitted have been approved but did not say how many employees filed for exemptions.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Neighbors for Liberty protest COVID-19 vaccine mandate at CHI Memorial in Ft. Oglethorpe)

Some employers have been hesitant to implement vaccine requirements for fear of losing much-needed staff amid nationwide worker shortages. However, the ongoing pandemic is more to blame for the health care workforce shortage than vaccine requirements, Long said.

"Health care workers resigned to care for small children or elderly parents, to accept travel positions or left due to personal concerns about the virus, to start a different career or just decided it was time to retire," she said. "We will need national, state, and local solutions to attract and train more health care professionals of all types for all hospitals, nursing homes and other health care providers."

Memorial's resignation rate mirrors nationwide polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation released Thursday.

Although more than a third of unvaccinated workers — or 5% of U.S. adults overall — say they would quit if their employer required COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing, only 5% of unvaccinated workers — 1% of all adults — actually do, the survey found.

(READ MORE: BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee fires 19 workers who refuse to get COVID-19 vaccine)

But losing even a handful of workers in a health care climate desperate for workers can be problematic.

A hospital in rural New York was forced to pause maternity services in September after 30 employees resigned as a result of a statewide vaccine mandate for health care workers, according to NPR.

Memorial has about 430 job openings, and 80% of those are for positions responsible for aspects of patient care, Long said.

Tennessee's Republican-led General Assembly convened a special session this week to file bills pushing back on local, state and federal COVID-19 mandates, including a pending regulation from President Joe Biden's administration that would require employers with 100 or more workers to ensure personnel are vaccinated for COVID-19 or else are tested weekly.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area employers question logistics, enforcement of vaccine mandate)

Proposed legislation would prevent businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from employees.

A separate pending rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced in September will require health care providers that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs — which is the vast majority of the nation's health care facilities, including Chattanooga's hospitals — to implement vaccine requirements as a condition of participation.

The American Hospital Association supports the requirement and is helping draft the policy.

Asked why they have not rolled out a vaccine requirement, officials from Erlanger Health System — Hamilton County's largest employer and the region's only public hospital — issued a statement saying, "Erlanger is prepared to meet any legal requirements set forth by the government for our associates pending the release of additional guidance."

The federal rules have not been finalized but would require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly.

Erlanger officials said, "At this time, we do not plan to add to this required testing and vaccination schedule."

Erlanger employed just over 6,300 full- and part-time workers as of June 30.

Unlike Chattanooga's other two hospitals, Erlanger did not join many of the county's largest employers who in September formed a coalition to help boost vaccination levels in the region up to at least 60% by December.

As of Thursday, Erlanger's online job portal listed nearly 400 openings across the system, including physician, administrative, managerial and other clinical roles.

Jamie Lawson, a spokesperson for Chattanooga-based Parkridge Health System, said in an email that the health system is reviewing the details of Biden's plan and best practices and knowledge gained from sister hospitals within its parent company, Nashville-based HCA Healthcare.

"Since COVID-19 vaccines became available earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as our infectious disease experts, have been strongly encouraging vaccination," Lawson said, adding that the hospital system continues to require staff in all areas to use protection such as face masks, regardless of vaccination status.

Parkridge has about 1,450 full- and part-time employees, according to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's 2021 major employer list.

After the announcement of the mandate, CHI Memorial shared an email address where employees could submit questions. The health system used those questions to create an FAQ document for all employees that included responses from hospital leaders and physicians about the vaccine approval process, safety and efficacy, as well as a video series addressing common questions.

"We received many questions related to pregnancy and breastfeeding and were able to record a video with a local OB/GYN who answered the questions we received from employees. The videos were posted on our intranet so employees could watch on demand," Long said.

In addition, Long said clinical and non-clinical executives visited departments to speak directly with employees about any concerns, and CHI Memorial Medical Group hosted virtual town halls for its staff.

"Our staff has been remarkable through this process. Leaders engaged with all employees with kindness. The employees who were hesitant sought answers from medical professionals to make informed decisions. Our physicians provided compassionate guidance. Those who oppose the requirement voiced their opinions respectfully."

Memorial's decision to require the vaccines came from its Chicago-based parent company, CommonSpirit Health.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.

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