HANCOCK COUNTY — Most of Hancock Health’s workforce is already complying with a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate that was set to start next week until legal action put it on pause.
The rule would affect health care facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs. Under the rule, all eligible staff would have to have received their first dose in a two-dose series of a COVID-19 vaccine or one dose of the single-dose vaccine by Dec. 6, and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022. The regulation also allows for exemptions based on medical conditions and religious beliefs.
A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS, from enforcing the rule until the court resolves legal challenges. The ruling applies to all states except the 10 already involved in a separate legal challenge also resulting in a temporary stay.
All staff for Hancock Health, which operates Hancock Regional Hospital in Greenfield and other health care facilities throughout the county, would be affected by the mandate.
Steve Long, president and CEO of Hancock Health, told the Daily Reporter before the stay that while he thought there may be legal challenges, he doesn’t think they’ll hold up. He noted health care providers choose whether to take care of patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid, and if they choose to, they must follow CMS rules. If one of those rules is COVID-19 vaccination for employees, then it will need to be followed, he continued.
“In the end, this is one that will happen, because Medicare and Medicaid are voluntary programs,” Long said.
Hancock Health has about 1,400 employees, and Long said about 85% to 90% of them comply with a policy the organization has established stemming from the CMS mandate.
The health care provider had implemented a policy before the mandate came out that required employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, get an accommodation for religious or medical reasons, or provide documentation of a COVID-19 infection.
“We recognize the value of natural immunity,” Long said of the last option.
CMS does not outline an accommodation for natural immunity, however. That prompted Hancock Health to tweak its immunity exemption to recognize an infection within the past six months. Anyone using that exemption would still have to get vaccinated six months from the infection, however.
“CMS does not address that in particular,” Long said. “We believe that the science supports that. There’s relatively few people that have had an infection in the last six months that work for us, because we’re very careful.”
Should the mandate stand, employees who don’t comply with the policy would face no longer being able to work for Hancock Health, Long said.
He added that to his knowledge, about two or three employees have quit in opposition to the mandate.
“The folks that work for Hancock Health are remarkably supportive of the organization,” he said. “They understand the importance of this for patient safety, because this is a weird world we’re in now. And they also understand the regulations that we all have to abide by, because we’re a health care organization. I applaud our employees, and our physicians, and everyone else that’s associated with us for their remarkable understanding and their resilience in the face of taking care of a lot of very sick people, and having to worry about this as well.”
Hancock Health’s policy applies to contractors and those not employed by the organization doing work in one of its facilities as well.
Earlier this year, the federal government also announced that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would enforce a separate mandate requiring employers with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or else wear masks and get tested weekly for the novel coronavirus. A federal court has placed a hold on that rule too, however.
While Hancock Health’s employee count also places it in the OSHA mandate that’s being challenged, the CMS rule would supersede it, Long said.
The legal debates mount as Hancock County recorded 105 COVID-19 cases on Nov. 30, its fifth-highest day of the pandemic.