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The vaccine exemption for state workers: Truthful statements required

WAIVER GRANTED: Veterans Affairs head Nate Todd (left); DHS head Cindy Gillespie and UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson won legislative waivers Friday, after lots of griping, from the state law preventing them from requiring vaccinations for health workers.

The legislature yesterday grudgingly allowed state institutions — UAMS, the Department of Human  Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs — to require COVID-19 vaccinations of their health workers rather than lose $700 million or more in federal Medicaid funding.

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As reported yesterday, state officials, such as UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, more or less indicated anyone who wanted a religious exemption would get one, which is what legislators wanted to hear. Some legislators predicted nobody who wasn’t already vaccinated would likely get vaccinated now because they would claim a “religious” exemption. One predicted UAMS might see 2,000 exemptions, though only 400 have been requested so far.

Worth remembering: UAMS already has vaccine requirements for other diseases and an exemption form that may be used to obtain one. In theory, a religious exemption should be rooted in a sincere belief — not just be a pretext for joining the mob of anti-vaxers inspired by misinformed right-wing nonsense spewers (such as the Arkansas legislature).

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Could you have no religious objection to a mumps shot, but claim a valid one for COVID alone? What verse of the Bible covers that?

Anyway, here’s the message UAMS Chancellor Patterson sent to 10,000-plus UAMS employees about the requirement.

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Dear Team UAMS,

I’ve never worked with a team as dedicated and talented as you.  Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic you have demonstrated compassion, resiliency and your commitment to the people we serve across the state of Arkansas. This public health crisis has been hard on everyone in society but especially on those involved in the health care industry. Every single one of you is valued and critical to our efforts.

During this uncertain time, there has been a great deal of discussion in the courts about the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare (CMS) mandate requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees at hospitals and health systems receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding. As you know, this CMS rule was released in November and subsequently stayed by the federal courts. Earlier this month, the U.S Supreme Court reversed the federal courts and upheld the CMS mandate. Hospitals and health care systems who do not comply risk the loss of CMS funding, which in our case is more than $600 million a year. In addition another $100 million we receive in NIH funding for research would be at risk.

The federal mandate put UAMS in an unsustainable position because the rule from CMS conflicts with state law prohibiting mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations at state institutions. Today, I sought advice from members of the Arkansas Legislative Council (ALC) about the CMS mandate. I so appreciate their time and guidance on this issue. We had a productive discussion on what our next steps should be. Ultimately, UAMS was granted an exemption from the state law and allowed to proceed with the CMS vaccine requirement for all employees.

I know that this will cause some angst for many of you who have chosen not to be vaccinated. I want you to know that the decision to proceed with the mandate was not made lightly but after thoughtful consideration by both the ALC and UAMS. We are both committed to ensuring that UAMS employees have the ability to request and receive vaccine exemptions.

If you have a sincerely held belief against receiving the COVID-19 vaccine or are medically prohibited from receiving it, you can request a religious or medical exemption. Click here for the medical and religious exemption forms.  If your position is classified as 100% remote, meaning you never come to a UAMS campus, you are exempt from the vaccine requirement. Please contact your supervisor to see if you qualify as a remote worker.

The CMS rule requires that employees do one of the following:

Get the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine no later than Feb. 14, and get the second dose no later than March 15; OR

– Get the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine no later than Feb. 14, and get the second dose no later than March 15; OR

– Get one dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine no later than Feb. 14; OR

– Apply for a medical or religious exemption from vaccination, in writing using the process outlined above, no later than Feb. 14.

Penalties could begin to accrue against UAMS if we are not 100% compliant with the CMS rules on or after April 14.

The majority of UAMS employees are already fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and many of you also received booster shots. Those who are unvaccinated can receive their vaccines at the UAMS Vaccine Clinic at 401 South Monroe Street from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. We will be offering the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines as well as the one-shot Johnson and Johnson. If you receive your vaccine outside of UAMS, please forward documentation to studentandemployeehealth@uams.edu.

Thank you for your perseverance throughout this pandemic. We do not want to lose any employees because of the vaccine requirement. We care about you. Thank you for your partnership and your support of the UAMS mission.

Here are the relevant parts of the religious exemption form.

Patterson said Friday that he anticipated all requests would be granted. Does that mean he presumes all employees who request them will be wholly truthful about a sincere religious exception to THIS vaccine as opposed to measles, mumps, flu, hepatitis B and so on? Legislative commentary suggests the COVID resistance isn’t about religion, except to the extent Trumpism is a cult religion.

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