FILE - Ochsner Health

(The Center Square) – Louisiana’s largest health care system announced mandatory employee vaccinations one day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine.

Ochsner Health has more than 32,000 employees and more than 4,500 providers across 40 owned, managed and affiliated hospitals and more than 100 health and urgent care centers.

Those covered under the new mandate must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 29 or face termination.

“Healthcare workers have experienced unbelievable challenges and sacrificed so much over the last 18 months to keep our patients and community safe. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and more than that, we owe them meaningful action,” said Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health. “This policy is the right thing to do to protect our employees, their families and our patients.”

A statement from the hospital chain said it’s caring for 979 COVID-19 patients and more than 88% are unvaccinated. Louisiana ranks 45th in the country for vaccinations with 40% of state residents fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ochsner's mandate applies to administrators, managers, physicians, employees, and new hires, as well as full-time and part-time workers at clinical and corporate-owned facilities. Certain parish-owned affiliated hospitals will set their own vaccine mandate timelines, such as St. Tammany Health System and Slidell Memorial Hospital.

In addition to employees, all Ochsner Health vendors; medical students; contract employees; PRN employees such as as-needed nurses, radiologic technologists and respiratory therapists; and volunteers must comply.

“Individuals not fully vaccinated by October 29 will be placed on leave beginning November 1, or for 30 days or until fully vaccinated,” Ochsner said in an email. “Employees who are not fully vaccinated following the 30-day leave period ending Monday, November 29, will be asked to leave the organization for policy violation.”

The health system said 69% of employees are vaccinated, leaving the question of whether significant numbers of unvaccinated employees will comply. The organization said it has attempted to persuade those who have overlooked vaccination, are vaccine hesitant or are outright opposed.

“Ochsner’s new policy follows months of internal encouragement and education. Employees have been offered additional vacation time and 24-hour vaccine availability. Vaccine experts have hosted Q&A sessions, one-on-one meetings and made rounds with vaccine carts to answer questions and make vaccination as convenient as possible,” Ochsner’s statement said.

In a Tuesday Zoom recording provided by Ochsner Health, Warner acknowledged a “small but vocal” group of employees who are against the vaccine requirement. He also spoke to certain exclusions.

“There will be exceptions for religious and medical reasons, for example, if someone tested positive for COVID and had the monoclonal antibodies and has to wait 90 days before they get vaccinated, they would get a medical exemption,” Warner said. “But for folks who are not vaccinated as of Oct. 29, they will be put on suspension for 30 days.”

Regarding the possibility of losing health care workers in the midst of a pandemic crisis, Warner said he was “hopeful that we won’t lose staff.” Warner then cited the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System’s employee and vendor vaccine mandate that was issued earlier this month before FDA approval.

Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System is one of Louisiana’s largest health care systems. Its vaccine mandate period began Aug. 15 and concludes Dec. 1.

Warner said it’s too early to gauge employee feedback, but said, “I do think you’re going to see other hospitals and health systems around the region go to mandatory vaccines.”

Staff Reporter

William Patrick is a regional reporter for The Center Square currently covering Louisiana. He previously covered the Florida Legislature and has a background in investigative journalism. William’s work has been widely published over his 10-year career.