Mandate for HMC: Vaccinations or testing for Hawaii Health Systems Corp. facility employees

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Dozens of people wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 by Premier Medical Group at Lokahi Park in Hilo on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

Employees at Hilo Medical Center and other Hawaii Health Systems Corp. facilities in East Hawaii have until early September to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face weekly testing.

The mandate was implemented earlier this week after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine — which will now be marketed as Comirnaty — for individuals 16 and older.

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Approximately 1,500 people are employed at facilities within HHSC’s East Hawaii Region, which includes Hilo Medical Center, Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua and Ka‘u Hospital.

“We’re reviewing charts and vaccination records,” HMC spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said.

Employees who have received a vaccination through the hospital won’t have to do anything, but those who were inoculated elsewhere will have until Sept. 7 to provide proof of their shots.

Testing will begin Sept. 8 and will be at cost to the employee. Medical and religious exemptions are due by Sept. 21.

“We do believe those who were on the fence were waiting for the full FDA approval,” she said. “We hope our numbers will rise.”

Gov. David Ige earlier this month announced that state and county employees in Hawaii must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested regularly for the novel coronavirus.

At that time, Ige said the mandate would apply to county and state executive branch employees, the University of Hawaii and state Department of Education — but not HHSC.

According to Cabatu, the East Hawaii Region had planned to follow a recommendation from the Healthcare Association of Hawaii to implement a vaccine mandate upon full FDA approval of the inoculation and initially did not plan to provide a testing provision.

“(Legislators) wanted us to go with the governor’s timeline and approach, and after extensive discussions, we decided to go along with that,” she said.

About 87% of East Hawaii Region employees have so far been vaccinated, and approximately 180 employees have not.

“If an employee refuses to test and isn’t vaccinated, we have disciplinary measures we can take that includes up to termination,” Cabatu said.

The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine will have little impact on enforcement of mandates already in place.

“There is no effect on the testing mandate (for the county). We can only hope that it will encourage more of our employees to be vaccinated,” said Cyrus Johnasen, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Roth.

The county has 2,773 employees, excluding the County Council.

Each employee was provided an attestation form that indicated vaccination status, and copies of vaccination cards also were submitted with the form, he said.

According to Johnasen, 1,940 county employees were fully vaccinated, 161 were partially vaccinated, and 520 were unvaccinated as of Wednesday.

The vaccination status of another 152 employees was unknown, he said, “a result of employees failing to turn in their attestation forms.”

“There have been some instance of employee pushback (regarding the mandate), but as far as formal complaints from employees, there have only been a few.”

The deadline for employees to provide their vaccination status was Monday.

“The increase in vaccination status has been slight, but we would assume that the numbers will increase as disciplinary steps begin to be taken toward those who fail to test or turn in their attestation forms,” Johnasen said. “That said, as those disciplinary actions begin to occur, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect to see minor changes in current services.”

A University of Hawaii spokesman said the FDA approval doesn’t change anything for the university system’s fall semester, which began Monday.

UH announced in May that, contingent on full FDA approval of at least one vaccine, students must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to return to campuses in the fall.

In July, however, the university, citing high vaccination rates, said because full FDA approval had not yet happened, enforcement of the requirement to attend in-person class would only take place after a vaccine was fully approved.

UH President David Lassner later said there would be, at minimum, a mandatory weekly testing protocol for any unvaccinated students on campus.

UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said when that testing option was announced, it also was stated that once the vaccine received full FDA approval, there would be no testing option in the spring. At that time, students will be required to have a vaccine or a medical or religious exemption to be on campus.

The university didn’t want to change requirements after classes began, he said.

“Of course, FDA approval comes the day the semester started.”

Any student with a religious or medical exemption in spring 2022 also will have to show proof of negative test results to be on campus, according to Meisenzahl.

Students currently living on campus at UH-Manoa or UH-Hilo, however, must be fully vaccinated or have an exemption. Those who have an exemption must be tested weekly.

The state Department of Human Resources Development in a news release Wednesday said that as of Aug. 16, 87.6% of Hawaii’s approximately 14,000 employees were fully vaccinated.

That number, however, did not include DOE and UH employees.

Another 4.8% were partially vaccinated, and 7.6% were unvaccinated.

By that same date, DHRD found that 98.6% of state employees were in compliance with the new mandate.

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According to the department, 87 people, or 0.6%, have applied for an exemption from the vaccine or testing requirement, while 11, or 0.08%, were placed on leave without pay because they did not return their attestation.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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