KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — East Tennessee hospital leaders on Friday said they know they’ll lose a few employees and volunteers as the Jan. 4 federal vaccine mandate deadline draws near, but say they have no choice but to enforce it.

Leaders at UTMC, Children’s Hospital and Covenant Health have always believed the COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to get the pandemic under control. But, they said what has changed is they must now comply with a mandate — or risk losing significant funding.

“We don’t have a lot of choice but to comply with this mandate, because all of us are highly dependent on being able to care for our patients. We got to be able to have reimbursement for Medicare,” said Dr. Mark Browne, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer of Covenant Health.

According to the hospital leaders, about 65% of patients at Covenant Health use Medicare or Medicaid; about 61% of UTMC patients use Medicare or Medicaid; and about 60% of Children’s Hospital patients use Medicaid.

“We have supported the vaccine throughout the entire pandemic, and that has not changed. We feel the same as we have,” said Dr. James Shamiyeh, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of UTMC.

“… the idea that this is something that we could even have a choice about, we really do not,” Shamiyeh said.

Complying with the vaccine mandate means conversations with the 20 to 30 percent of employees who have not already been fully vaccinated, the hospitals said. At Covenant Health, that’s about 30%; UTMC it’s about 26%, and Children’s Hospital it’s about 20%.

“We want to retain every single one of our staff members, but we also know that we have to follow through on the process that we set up to comply with this regulation. But, we will do it with compassion because we understand there’s strong emotions,” Shamiyeh said.

Matt Schaefer, President, and CEO of East Tennessee Children’s Hospital said the mandate is simply one of the hundreds or thousands of rules hospitals must follow under the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in order to receive the reimbursements from their patients.

“Things as simple as ‘don’t put a cart in front of an exit path.’ And this is just another one of those and we can’t choose which ones we do and don’t comply with,” Schaefer said.

According to the mandate policies handed down by CMS, employees will have options other than getting vaccinated or fired. They can have religious or medical exemptions.

Browne said the wording isn’t so specific for the religious exemptions other than the employee having a strong religious belief against receiving the vaccine. These hospital leaders want their staff to know every employee is valuable when it comes to achieving their mission, regardless of vaccination status.

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The hospital leaders would also like to note that the majority of their employees chose to get vaccinated before a mandate was in place. They will always be frontline heroes, vaccine or no vaccine, but as all three leaders said, they hope to keep as many employees as possible because they play a vital role to ensure the community’s safety.

“Your mom, your dad, your son, your daughter. And we want every one of those heroes as we work through the process; vaccination, exemption, etc., to continue to be here for their community as we move forward,” Schaefer said.

Browne, Shamiyeh, and Schaefer all said they aren’t naïve and know some will leave. But, it’s too soon to know how many employees could leave, at a time when they’re already short-staffed.