The push by health care professionals to see mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies adopted because of the highly contagious delta variant is gaining momentum.
On Monday, New Hanover County’s Health and Human Services Board voted to recommend that the county adopt a policy of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for all of its employees.
In a letter sent to County Manager Chris Coudriet following its meeting, the board said the coronavirus “remains a threat to New Hanover County public health, economy, and way of life” and that vaccinations should be mandated for all eligible county employees, defined as all employees other than those who qualify for a “legitimate medical or religious exemption.”
The letter, signed by board chair LeShonda Wallace, a family nurse practitioner, HIV clinician and integrative health coach at NHRMC, said the motion to recommend adoption of a mandatory vaccination policy came after “robust discussion” by board members.
The Health and Human Services Board also encouraged New Hanover County’s public sector employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their own employees. Those employers include the city of Wilmington and smaller beach town municipalities.
“Unvaccinated employees shall undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, wear masks and practice physical distancing. It is further recommended that reasonable accommodations be made to mitigate any financial hardships upon employees,” the board’s letter to Coudriet said. The letter did not specify what type of financial “accommodations” could be made.
The Health and Human Services Board is a 15-member panel whose members include a physician, pharmacist, psychologist, registered nurse, social worker and other health care professionals.
According to Virginia Adams, an at-large member of the board, participants at Monday’s meeting spent considerable time discussing how medical exemptions to a mandatory policy might be handled and who would absorb the costs run up by individuals who continually refuse to be vaccinated and undergo weekly testing.
“The conclusion was the county would absorb that cost,” Adams said.
County leadership will review the board’s recommendations over the coming days to ensure they are fully vetted, and questions have been answered before any action would be considered, said Jessica Loeper, the county’s chief communications officer.
New Hanover County currently has 1,910 funded staff positions, Loeper said.
The health board’s discussion comes as New Hanover County is experiencing what it calls “a concerning resurgence” in newly reported cases of COVID-19 and an increase in the percent of tests that are positive for the virus.
In the weekly period ending July 29, the county reported 334 new cases compared to 119 new reported cases during the prior week. “Our county metrics have taken a sharp turn in the wrong direction, and we need to prevent this from continuing,” said last week’s statement by David Howard, the county’s public health director.
In Pender County, commissioner David Williams said he was not aware of any move to have that county adopt a mandatory vaccination policy.
“Brunswick County is not considering a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for employees currently. We continue to encourage all employees to get vaccinated if they have not done so already, and employees that have not been fully vaccinated should continue to wear a mask,” a statement from that county said.
If enacted, adoption of a mandatory vaccination policy by New Hanover County government would follow directives already issued at the federal and state levels.
Last Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a mandatory program covering millions of federal workers and contractors that also provides exceptions for individuals with underlying medical issues or faith-based convictions.
In his remarks, the president said every American who gets vaccinated going forward would receive a $100 payment, with state and local governments drawing those funds from an existing $350 billion coronavirus aid package.
Biden’s comments came as about 6 in 10 adults in the country had been fully vaccinated, while others continue to hesitate or resist being inoculated.
At the state level, North Carolina has begun verifying the vaccination status of state government employees. Those not shown to be vaccinated are now required to wear a mask and be tested at least once a week for the virus as case and hospitalization numbers increase around the state.
As of Monday, 50% of all North Carolinians had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and less than half, 47%, had received two doses.
Vaccination rates in New Hanover County are higher, but not by much, with 53% having received one dose and 50% receiving two doses.
Following the president’s announcement of a mandatory policy for federal employees and contractors, a number of large businesses in the private sector came forth with their own plans for mandatory jabs.
Locally, NHRMC – the largest employer in the region with 7,500 area employees at the start of this year – has emerged as a leader in enforcing mandatory inoculations.
Novant has 35,000 employees at facilities across three states, and 67% of them have received at least one dose of vaccine to date, according to Ashton Miller, a spokesperson for the health system.
“Like systems across the country, we are seeing lower acceptance rates among our Black and Brown team members, as well as those who identify as Gen Z or millennials. We are seeing a higher acceptance rate among those with higher level clinical roles. Our physicians, for example, have accepted the vaccine at a higher rate (95%) than the overall team member vaccination rate,” Miller said in a statement.
To overcome vaccination hesitancy, Novant is “holding weekly forums to address individual concerns and common misconceptions, making the vaccine convenient and accessible, and providing continuous updates on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy,” she said. “We agree with the North Carolina Health Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and many other health care systems in the region that a mandatory vaccine program is in the best interest of public health.”