A Wayne County legislator and 54 other state Republican House members signed a letter opposing vaccine mandates for health care workers at hospitals in the state.

House Majority Leader John Bell IV, a Republican representing District 10, signed a letter addressed to several hospital CEOs, including Dr. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Health.

The Aug. 5 letter was sent to CEOs at UNC Health, WakeMed Hospitals, Vidant Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health, Duke University Health System, Novant Health, Cone Health and Atrium Health.

Late last month, leaders of those hospital systems announced mandatory vaccines for hospital system workers.

In the letter to hospital system CEOs, legislators expressed concern about vaccine mandates and the potential for staffing shortages.

“As you know, hospitals across the state are struggling to fill open nursing positions,” legislators said in the letter. “In fact, Duke Health is seeking to hire around 700 nursing positions and UNC Health is looking for more than 800 nurses. This decision to terminate nurses and other healthcare professionals who do not take the vaccine will only exacerbate the problem.”

The 55 Republicans also emphasized how concerned hospital workers are about their health and ability to keep their jobs.

“Regardless of the legality surrounding mandatory vaccinations, there are valid concerns and fears from healthcare workers who will lose their job if they do not take the vaccine.”

An issue of particular concern, legislators wrote, is women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and those with preexisting conditions or religious objections.

“While we recognize the importance of vaccines and respect the rights of private employers, we strongly encourage you to reexamine this requirement with greater input from employees and flexibility for those who have legitimate objections,” legislators wrote.

On July 23, UNC Wayne Health Care, which is part of the UNC Health network of hospitals, mandated vaccines for its workers with a deadline of Sept. 21.

“We’re starting to see just marked increases in sick providers, sick care givers, sick community members and patients in hospitals around the country, not just in North Carolina,” said Jessie Tucker, president and chief executive officer of Wayne UNC Health Care.

On Aug. 9, Tucker said Wayne UNC Health Care had 27 COVID-19 patients and 12 unvaccinated employees who were out sick with the virus that has contributed to the deaths of 247 people in Wayne County and more than 13,000 statewide.

“We’re struggling with staffing, which is what we’re trying to avoid by getting folks vaccinated so they won’t be sick and won’t be out,” Tucker said.

“We are always worried about staffing. Unfortunately, this has been exacerbated by COVID illnesses in teammates, some of whom will never fully recover and return to work. Conversely, we’ve not had a single vaccinated teammate not able to return to work.”

Since mandating the vaccine, Tucker said 102 workers have been vaccinated and another 21 are signed up.

In July, 774 of the hospital’s 1,550 employees at Wayne UNC Health Care were unvaccinated, Tucker said.

Tucker said several of the hospital’s workers have been vaccinated at clinics and the Wayne County Health Department.

Tucker said he understands the concerns raised by legislators.

“I definitely, totally, understood their concerns, and a lot of the issues have been raised by our teammates,” Tucker said. “We can always do a better job of educating our team about the science and keeping them up to date on the latest developments.”

To educate workers, Tucker said doctors, including obstetricians, have made videos to assuage any concerns about getting vaccinated.

“Another thing that we’re going to do is create a frequently asked questions document,” Tucker said. “We’re also going to create a portal for our teammates to submit questions and get their questions answered by clinical experts and then we’ll post those responses so everyone can read them.”

Even with education efforts underway, Tucker said COVID-19 positivity rates at the hospital are rising.

Positivity rates refers to the percentage of patients who test positive for COVID-19 at the hospital. Tucker said patients testing positive for COVID-19 include those who are admitted and those who are being screened prior to having procedures done.

In March, the hospital had a 2.9% positivity rate. On Aug. 9, that rate was 17.3%.

According to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services figures, 37% of Wayne County population was fully vaccinated as of Aug. 9.

Tucker said the number of COVID-19-infected patients at Wayne UNC Health Care is expected to climb.

“Every model that UNC is running for us projects that our numbers are going to continue to rise,” Tucker said.