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Duke, UNC, other NC hospital systems requiring workers to be vaccinated ::

— Major hospital systems across North Carolina, including Durham-based Duke University Health System and Chapel Hill-based UNC Health, announced Thursday that all staff and physicians must be vaccinated to continue working there.

The moves come on the heels of the North Carolina Healthcare Association’s decision backing mandatory vaccinations for health care workers. The association represents 130 hospitals and health systems statewide.

“Protecting patients, visitors and health care personnel from COVID-19 continues to be of paramount importance. Hospital and health system employee vaccination against COVID-19 is vital to safely care for patients by protecting them from infection and to mitigate the spread of the virus within health care facilities and among clinicians, patients and their families and friends,” the association said in a statement.

Duke Health and UNC Health have set a Sept. 21 deadline for staff to get fully vaccinated, and employees will have to show proof of vaccination to their supervisors. Anyone seeking a medical or religious exemption from getting the vaccine must request it by Sept. 7.

Anyone who doesn’t meet the deadline will get a warning and then, if they still aren’t vaccinated, will face termination, said Dr. Tom Owens, senior vice president of Duke Health and president of Duke University Hospital.

About a quarter of Duke Health’s more than 22,000 employees remain unvaccinated, a spokeswoman said. Similarly, about 28 percent of UNC Health’s workers haven’t been vaccinated, a spokesman said.

“We all commit as health care professionals to do no harm – that is part of our oath. We need to make sure that we’re not giving COVID to the patients were caring for,” Owens said. “We’re doing it for a reason – we did not take this decision lightly, but we are worried about the trend we see.”

New coronavirus infections in North Carolina have been climbing in the past couple of weeks, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Another 1,800 cases were reported statewide Thursday, the highest single-day total since May 7. The seven-day average of cases is 1,154 a day over the last week, which is double what is was just nine days ago.

WRAL’s Lena Tillett asked Dr. Robin Peace with UNC Health Southeastern about the decision.

“As a physician, I took an oath to do no harm, and why wouldn’t I take a vaccine to help protect the patients that I’m serving?” Peace asked. “I wouldn’t go to a doctor that wasn’t vaccinated for COVID.”

Peace also talked about the mask decision for schools and the rise in cases statewide. You can watch her full interview in this week’s On The Record.

More than 750 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in North Carolina, with about a quarter of them in intensive care.

Owens said the hospital systems view the vaccine mandate as “a call to action” that officials hope will spur more North Carolinians to get vaccinated. Statewide, only 57 percent of adults 18 or older are fully vaccinated, with another 3 percent having had one vaccine dose.

“We hope by stepping forward that members of the community view this action as evidence that they should also go forward to protect themselves and those that care about,” he said. “We, in fact, need many more members of our communities to step forward and get vaccinated.”

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Other hospital systems mandating vaccinations for staff include Greensboro-based Cone Health, Winston-Salem-based Novant Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health and Charlotte-based Atrium Health.

WakeMed officials said they will likely require staff to get vaccinated as well, but they haven’t set up a deadline yet. About 80 percent of the system’s employees are already vaccinated, they said.

“The law allows employers to mandate this stuff,” attorney Daniel Meier said, adding that any request for an exemption must be based on a sound religious or medical reason.

“A lot of the myths out there like what [the vaccine] is made of or that it messes with your DNA simply isn’t true, and you can’t base your objection on a falsehood you read on the internet,” Meier said. “So, I think, if people do try to push it, most of them are going to lose.”

Owens said he knows that some Duke Health employees are upset with the mandate, but he is committed to having frank conversations with staff about the vaccines and the need for everyone working in the system’s facilities to get their shots.

“We have a tremendous body of work to show that these vaccines are safe,” he said. “Unfortunately, this vaccine has become somewhat politicized, and there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation provided on social media and in other forums that is impacting people’s thinking about it, even members of our team.”