Local nurses, doctors and other health care staff face deciding between unemployment and getting the COVID-19 vaccine, if they have not already done so.

North Oaks Health System will require its employees, volunteers, Board of Commissioners members and students to be vaccinated by federal mandate effective Dec. 5.

The mandate comes from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service Omnibus COVID-19 Healthcare Staff Vaccination Interim Final Rule, according to hospital officials.

“At this point, the way things stand is that after Dec. 5, 2021, the only way North Oaks or any other CMS-licensed health care facility or provider in the U.S. can take care of Medicare and Medicaid patients is if all staff members are vaccinated for COVID-19,” said Melanie Zaffuto, North Oaks spokesperson.

Approved religious or medical accommodations are the only two exceptions included that allow masking by staff, she added.

According to North Oaks, the final rule is a licensing requirement of CMS, so staff must follow the rules imposed upon them by this regulatory agency, meaning any staff member who chooses not to receive the vaccine has the option to seek a religious or medical accommodation. Otherwise, the staff member would no longer be able to be employed by or affiliated with North Oaks.

North Oaks officials are assessing the number of unvaccinated staff members who plan to receive the vaccine by Dec. 5, the number who are filing for an accommodation, and the number who will be leaving North Oaks, Zaffuto said.

On Monday, she could not state the percentage of non-vaccinated individuals, but Zaffuto said North Oaks’ percentage exceeds both state and parish averages when all classifications, including employees, volunteers, Board of Commissioner members and students are considered.

The situation is distressing to at least one long-time North Oaks employee whose husband told The Daily Star that, despite being willing to wear a mask, she will be sent home from the job she enjoyed and has worked at throughout the pandemic.

Neither he nor his wife have received the shot because they do not feel it safe. Even facing termination is not enough to sway their decision, he said, adding that it should be their personal decision.

Vaccines have continued to be offered to North Oaks’ staff since December 2020 when vaccines were made available to healthcare workers, according to hospital officials.

“The more individuals we have vaccinated, the more individuals we have protected against severe illness,” Zaffuto said. “However, the potentially negative and far-reaching implications of the mandate in exacerbating the current health care worker shortage may outweigh the positives of having more shots in arms.”

North Oaks is no exception to the massive health care worker shortage every single hospital and health system across the country is facing. The health care system’s administration is working with state and federal health care groups to ensure awareness of the implications that this final rule may have on the already strained US health care system’s ability to care for the community, Zaffuto said.

“This is of extreme concern to health care leaders on the national, state and local fronts – especially should we face another COVID surge down the road,” she said.

North Oaks officials are watching all court cases closely, and if legal challenges result in new or revised federal rules being issued, North Oaks will be prepared to pivot accordingly, Zaffuto said.

Louisiana is one of 12 states whose attorney general has filed a complaint against the US Department of Health and Human Services and its secretary and the centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and its administrator.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court on Nov. 15 in Monroe.

According to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, “The OSHA stay issued by the 5th Circuit is still in effect. OSHA is prohibited from doing anything to enforce the vaccine mandate pending litigation which is now being handled in the 6th Circuit.”

On Dec. 7, a hearing has been set for the Louisiana Supreme Court to hear arguments regarding whether Shreveport Ochsner Health can require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to North Oaks, “Should a staff member receive the COVID vaccination in the future, or CMS alters its position, he or she would be eligible for reinstatement through June 30, 2022.”

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