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RI HEALTH

Can unvaccinated health care workers return to work in Rhode Island?

The state’s largest health care systems are searching to fill thousands of positions, and are considering allowing the unvaccinated employees they terminated five months ago back to work.

Pharmacy Manager Shannon Baker prepares a syringe for the new COVID-19 vaccine to be administered to a Lifespan Health Care worker.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — It’s been five months since Rhode Island’s hospitals were told to place their unvaccinated employees on leave because of a state policy. But after the mandate’s carousel of changes, there’s a chance that these same fired employees could return to work soon.

At Lifespan, the state’s largest hospital system, CEO Dr. Timothy J. Babineau told a room full of executives at the Providence Business News’ Health Care Summit on Wednesday that approximately 200 workers were terminated (of about 17,000 total positions) because they refused to get the shot. But now, he said, the system is pondering whether to bring those same people back.

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“We’re evaluating that,” Babineau said, responding to a question as to whether these employees could come back. “We’re pretty rigid in the way we have run our business for 30 or 40 years, and one of the things we’ve figured out, in addition to rebuilding the workforce, we need to rebuild the care delivery model.”

The system has more than 2,700 job vacancies. Spokeswoman Kathleen Hart said the system has not yet changed its vaccination policy for employees.

Care New England, the second largest health system in the state, had reportedly said in October that 200 to 300 people declined to get vaccinated. But Care New England president and CEO Dr. James Fanale has said since then that his system ended up losing fewer than 100 employees because of the vaccine mandate, Raina Smith, a Care New England spokeswoman, said Friday. The company has not lifted its original vaccination requirements, Smith told the Globe Thursday. But Dr. Raymond Powrie, CNE’s executive chief of medicine, said the executives are also considering bringing back unvaccinated workers.

CNE currently has 983 positions open systemwide, the spokeswoman said Friday.

“We struggle with this,” Powrie said at the same summit. “I struggle with the idea of what that means for patients… We’re thinking it through. We haven’t made all final decisions.

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“But in general I feel a strong need to stand by those workers who got the vaccines at a time of crisis and made sure they were there for us; and try to educate, work with and understand the perspectives of those who don’t,” said Powrie.

Smith said if Powrie said it’s being considered, “then it is. But I haven’t received word on any change yet.”

When the vaccine mandate for health care workers was announced by the governor and state health department in late summer 2021, it was clear that any unvaccinated employees wouldn’t even be allowed in the building when the Oct. 1 deadline came. Religious exemptions were not permitted, and workers filed a lawsuit. But a federal judge sided with the state.

Yet the closer the deadline became, the state began to soften the regulation. By the time the deadline passed, Governor Dan McKee’s administration said unvaccinated workers could stay on for an additional 30 days if their employer said they were “critical” for patient care.

The overwhelming majority of health care workers got vaccinated, and few lost their jobs despite outrage — and even protests — from those who refused the shot. The state went as far as saying in the original policy that anyone who did not follow the regulation was subjected to any other action under law “in addition to any action against the professional and/or facility license.” But from Nov. 1 to Thursday, 36 health care workers have had action taken on their licenses to practice, but not one lists that it was due to being unvaccinated.

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Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the state health department, told the Globe the current state regulation is that health care workers need to be up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccine, which currently means a primary series and a booster or they must wear medical-grade masks when Rhode Island is seeing “elevated levels” of transmission (50 cases or more per 100,000 people per week).

Separately, a federal policy requires workers in facilities that receive Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) reimbursement to get at least a primary series of COVID-19, he said. For those in facilities that do not receive CMS reimbursement, he confirmed, they can still report to work if they have not received their primary series at all but wear an N95 mask.

Brad Dufault, a spokeswoman for the United Nurses and Allied Professionals union, which represents more than 7,000 health care workers in the state, said they still support vaccine mandates for workers.

“The pandemic is not over, as we’ve seen with the new Omicron variant, and we still have COVID patients in our hospitals,” Dufault said in a statement Thursday night. “We must continue to ensure our hospitals are safe for patients and healthcare workers, and we urge all Rhode Islanders to get vaccinated and boosted in an effort to prevent another surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

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Other hospitals said they would have brought unvaccinated employees back if it wasn’t for the state’s regulation.

Fiona Phelan, a spokeswoman for Westerly Hospital, which is owned by Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut, said employees in the system, outside of Rhode Island, can either receive vaccination, as well as a booster, or receive a medical or religious exemption.

However, religious exemptions have not been permitted in the state of Rhode Island for health care workers. Phelan said while the state does not recognize religious exemptions, Yale New Haven Health does. Those Rhode Island employees who were granted religious exemptions had to be terminated, she said.

“We do not have currently have any employees with religious exemptions as Rhode Island does not allow them,” she said.

Aaron Robinson, the president and CEO of South County Health, said in an email: “South County Health is currently evaluating the changes to RIDOH regulations regarding vaccinated healthcare workers, though our position currently remains to have all healthcare workers vaccinated against COVID-19.” South County Hospital in Wakefield is part of South County Health.

Officials from Landmark Medical Center and CharterCARE Hospitals could not be immediately reached.

This story has been updated with additional information from Care New England.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz. Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.