With the beginning of the new year, OCH Regional Medical Center has implemented some changes to its COVID-19 policies, and the most significant change is the addition of a vaccine mandate.

On Jan. 13, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to put into effect their vaccine mandate nationwide.

With this mandate being put into effect, employees at OCH are required to get the vaccine or receive a medical or religious exemption. The mandate states that employees are not required to get the COVID-19 booster shot.

Since the start of the pandemic, employees say OCH has been overwhelmed with patients and staffing issues. Mary Kathryn Kight is the director of public relations at OCH. She works with these employees every day, and she said the hospital directors hope to minimize any adverse effects from the mandate.

"At OCH, we do not want to see anyone negatively impacted by this mandate, and we pledge to compassionately navigate the requirements of the mandate within the criteria we are given," Kight said.

Some employees choose not to get the vaccine, for reasons like a medical condition or for religious purposes, in which case those employees may file an exemption. Lauren Gardner is the director of marketing at OCH, and she said the exemptions are going to be completely fair.

"All of the exemption letters are put on a computer, anonymously, and a committee will go through the letters. Without any of the names attached, it will be a fair and efficient system in deciding who will receive an exemption and who will not," Gardner said.  

Gardner said the hospital does exemptions this way to promote fairness and equal treatment among all employees. Starting on Feb. 14, covered staff hired must have at least the first COVID-19 vaccination shot.

OCH employees explained that the hospital has experienced a severe staff shortage since the pandemic. Resident nurse Shelby Huffman works in the ER at OCH and said she does not think employees are leaving due to the mandate.

"At first, there was a good bit of upset about the vaccine mandate, and some people were making threats to quit, but I do not actually know anyone who has quit because of it. Most people who do not want to get it are taking religious or medical exemptions. We are short-staffed, but the vaccine mandate itself has not seemed to make it worse," Huffman said.

Like OCH, other hospitals in the state are implementing this vaccine mandate. However, Kight said OCH is trying to stay above the struggles of other hospitals.

"We have seen the anxiety caused and effect on healthcare workers that such a mandate has created at other state hospitals that implemented a vaccine mandate," Kight said.

OCH posted its vaccine mandate on its website for anyone to read. It gives specific guidelines for all staff who provide any care, treatment or other services for OCH and its patients.

The OCH vaccine mandate states that the hospital will keep all information confidential, and it requests that employees do not include any genetic information with the submitted proof of vaccination. The OCH vaccine mandate also states that any staff who fail to comply with this policy will not be qualified to provide any services for OCH or its patients.

"I am against the vaccine being mandated. However, I am vaccinated, so I am not actually against the vaccine, just the mandate. I feel it should be everyone's personal choice," Huffman said.

OCH is giving its employees free Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Temporary exemptions can be given to employees who need a brief delay for medical reasons.

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