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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s only level-one trauma hospital and academic medical center will require all employees and students who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear an N95 mask while inside, a decision that a top official acknowledged would not be popular with everyone in the country’s least vaccinated state and may result in the loss of employees.
“This is not a popular decision with some people. There are some people in the medical profession with who in fact, this is not a popular decision, and I acknowledge that,” University of Mississippi Medical Center Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Dr. LouAnn Woodward said Friday during a news conference.
Woodward said the University of Mississippi Medical Center has responsibility and an obligation as “the place that takes care of the sickest patients” to set the example for others in health care across the state.
“I feel strongly that this is the right thing to do,” she said, emphasizing that the vaccines are safe and offer strong protection against contracting the potentially life-threatening disease.
The policy will require all of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s 10,000 employees and 3,000 students to either be vaccinated or wear an N95 mask at all times while at any hospital-affiliated facility. The new rule will also apply to contractors, vendors and anyone else who might come into contact with patients.
Visitors will continue to be required to wear masks whether they are vaccinated or not.
The policy will go into effect gradually over the course of three months beginning July 26. Managers and supervisors will be first, followed by employees who work directly with patients and others. Everyone should be fully vaccinated or wearing an N95 mask at all times by November 1, according to the medical center.
Officials said they aren’t sure precisely how many haven’t been vaccinated, but they plan on consulting employees’ medical records for verification.
Speaking with reporters at a press conference on the hospital’s campus, Woodward said hospital leaders have been mulling the policy for weeks as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have begun to rise again, with the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant.
On Friday, there were six children hospitalized with COVID-19 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, with three of those children being in intensive care. Officials said they are seeing more pediatric hospitalizations from the virus than they’ve seen in past peaks.
She said the hospital’s legal and human resources teams completed an intensive review of the policy to ensure it is “sound and defensible.”
“One of the things that we talked about internally before we put this out was, ‘OK, now we need to brace ourselves for hate mail,’ because we knew that this is an issue that, for whatever reason, people feel so strongly divided on and so political,” she said.
Woodward, who is also the dean of the School of Medicine, said the reaction to the policy had been mixed so far, with many people on both sides of the debate reacting on social media and via email.
She said the new policy may result in some employees choosing to leave, “the last thing we want.”
“The heaviest part of this is knowing that some of our own will feel unhappy about this,” she said. “But at the end of the day our obligation is to the patients. That’s the most critical thing.”
Woodward said the University of Mississippi Medical Center values its employees and that it weighs on her that “some of our employees feel disenfranchised by this because that’s not the intent at all.”
“This is not a place to work if you’re looking for somewhere easy, a not-too-hard job,” she said. “We take care of some sick, sick patients here. The people that work here have a heart for our mission.”
The hospital has long been challenged by a nursing shortage, and can’t afford to lose employees, Woodward said.
With just 31% of its population fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Mississippi ranks last among U.S. states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a major concern in a state with high rates of residents with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and other conditions that heighten the risk of having a severe case of COVID-19, Woodward said.
She said she hopes that other health care systems will be inspired to follow the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s lead to get the state’s vaccination rate up.
“Mississippi’s rate of vaccine uptake is not what we want it to be,” she said. “It is not what we need it to be.”
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.