Health care workers at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside rally in support ...

Photo by Roland Lizarondo

Above: Health care workers at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside rally in support of The Health Care and Essential Workers Protection Act, August 25, 2020.

In just over two weeks California’s vaccination mandate for health care workers goes into effect — unlike other requirements there is no testing opt-out option.

Latest numbers from the largest health providers in San Diego County show there are still many workers who need the vaccine, or risk losing their jobs.

At Sharp HealthCare and UC San Diego Health 89% of staff are fully vaccinated. At Scripps Health it is 88%; 87% at Rady Children’s Hospital and 77% at Palomar Health. Local Kaiser officials did not provide numbers to KPBS, a spokesperson said they were still working on calculating them.

“We’re definitely very concerned — it’s not just Sharp. It’s all our other health care partners in town,” said Sharp HealthCare’s Chief Operating Officer Brett McClain. KPBS also requested interviews about this topic with officials from UC San Diego Health, Scripps, Rady Children’s, Palomar Health and Kaiser.

McClain said there are more than 600 employees who have not started their vaccinations or filed for exemptions, meaning they could be terminated — something McClain hopes does not happen, especially during an industry-wide staffing shortage.

“Very, very worrisome,” he said. “We’re enacting contingency plans to make sure we have things in place to make sure that we can continue to take care of patients.”

RELATED: California To Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines For Health Workers

While the state ordered health care workers to be vaccinated by Sept. 30, officials are leaving it to employers to implement the requirement.

At Sharp, workers not in compliance will be put on unpaid leave for 30 days and if they are not vaccinated by then, they will be no longer employed. At Palomar Health, people will go on a leave of absence for up to 30 days with consequences still yet to be determined. At Kaiser, unvaccinated employees will be on unpaid leave for up to 60 days before facing termination.

UC San Diego Health is also adhering to the state’s mandate, their website says those not in compliance may face disciplinary actions. Scripps Health and Rady Children’s Hospital officials said they are complying with the mandate, but did not provide their policies.

“The policy pertaining to those who are not vaccinated by the deadline and have not been granted an exemption is under development,” a Rady Children’s spokesperson said.

Health care workers can also request exemptions based on medical or religious reasons.

“When you’re talking about the medical or disability exemption you have to have a note from the health care provider — the same is not true with the religious exemption,” said legal analyst Dan Eaton, an attorney with Seltzer, Caplan, McMahon and Vitek.

Systems are getting hundreds of requests for religious exemptions. At Scripps, a spokesperson said they have gotten more than 500 requests for exemptions, mostly citing religious beliefs. Sharp officials have received more than 800 exemption requests, with 700 citing religious reasons.

Eaton said there is a gray area in determining what actually qualifies as a religious exemption.

“Employers certainly can have employees fill out a form explaining the basis of the religious exemption,” he said. “That’s really designed to see really the basis of the religious exemption is really tied to religion or whether it’s tied to a philosophical resistance — now the line between religion and philosophy is not entirely clear.”

Eaton said it has to be a bona-fide religious belief and thinks there may be lawsuits surrounding religious exemption requests if they are denied, but he said it has largely been untested in the courts. He also added that employers are not required to grant an exemption — whether it is based on medical or religious reasons — if it puts an “undue burden” on the employer.

“That means it has to be a significant financial or operational burden — this may qualify but it’s not entirely clear that it will,” Eaton said. “There has been some writing to suggest that employees who refuse to get vaccinated are by that fact imposing an undue burden on the ability of their employer to open up.”

Reported by Matt Hoffman

McClain with Sharp said without specific guidance from the state on what exactly a religious exemption is, they are put in a difficult position.

“Generally we’re going to be incredibly liberal in those approvals,” he said. “It’s not our place to get in the middle of that.”

Those who are unvaccinated and get approved exemptions will have to be regularly tested and will be required to wear surgical masks while inside health care facilities.

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Matt Hoffman
Health Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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