Ascension Florida rescinds suspensions of unvaccinated workers

Ascension Florida is revoking the suspensions of unvaccinated employees and allowing them to return to work as part of a COVID-19 policy shift, according to CBS affiliate WJAX.

The change comes after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation Nov. 18 designed to counter federal COVID-19 mandates. The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has announced a vaccinate-or-test mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees. CMS has also announced a regulation requiring vaccination for eligible staff at healthcare facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs. Both mandates face legal challenges, including a complaint filed Nov. 18 over the CMS mandate in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Pensacola. 

The Florida legislation prohibits vaccination mandates for private employers unless also providing various exemptions, including medical or religious concerns; pregnancy or anticipated future pregnancy; and past COVID-19 recovery, according to a news release from the governor's office. It also allows employees to opt out if they agree to periodic testing or wearing personal protective equipment. Businesses would have to cover the costs of testing and PPE exemptions for employees. 

The legislation also includes a fine of $10,000 per employee violation for small businesses (99 employees or less) and a fine of $50,000 per employee violation for medium and big businesses (100 workers or more) that violate the state's mandate guidelines.

St. Louis-based Ascension announced a vaccination mandate in July, giving employees until Nov. 12 to complete the vaccine series and meet the vaccination requirement.

To be compliant with federal and state laws, Ascension Florida is rescinding the suspensions of employees who were suspended pending their compliance with the Ascension Florida vaccination policy, Ascension Florida and Gulf Coast President and CEO Tom VanOsdol said in a Nov. 19 memo shared with WJAX.

"All associates will be required to continue to comply with our infection control protocols," Mr. VanOsdol said.

According to the memo, suspensions could be reinstated once there is more clarity around the Florida legislation and the CMS mandate.

Becker's also checked in with other healthcare organizations that have announced mandates and are affected by Florida law.

Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare, a for-profit hospital operator with three divisions in Florida, announced in November that employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4, in accordance with federal vaccination requirements.

"To date, HCA Healthcare has encouraged our colleagues to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and made vaccines readily available, but we have not mandated vaccination. Even though several states in which we operate have taken legislative action to limit vaccine mandates, we are required to comply with recently issued federal healthcare regulations through CMS and will require vaccination for our colleagues who are covered by the CMS mandate," HCA said in a statement Nov. 18.

The company added, "More than three out of four of our colleagues are included in this category. If we do not comply with the CMS mandate, we will lose our ability to care for Medicare and Medicaid patients in the communities we serve."

HCA said the company has plans in place based on processes, best practices and knowledge gained from our operations in states that have already mandated vaccination. As of Nov. 18, a majority of HCA workers were already fully vaccinated. 

Cleveland Clinic, which announced its mandate Nov. 12, reported a vaccination rate of 83 percent as of Nov. 22.

The health system said its Cleveland Clinic Florida locations are continuing planning efforts to ensure compliance with vaccination rules.

Ascension's Florida and Gulf Coast Ministry Market includes Ascension Sacred Heart and the Studer Family Children's Hospital based in Pensacola, Fla., Jacksonville, Fla.-based Ascension St. Vincent's, and Ascension Providence in Mobile, Ala.

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