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Tampa Bay employers react to vaccine mandates coming in January

Two more local health care providers said they will require their staff to be vaccinated, while others were less specific.
Dionne Christian, the Straz Center special assistant to the COO, on left, checks the Covid vaccination card of Bob Sheehan, 67, and his wife Kathy Sheehan, 66, from Carrollwood, at the Covid entry verification check point as the couple enters the David A. Straz Jr Center for the Performing Arts as the Broadway season reopens with Tootsie after a year of sitting out because of the pandemic on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021 in Tampa. Tampa Bay companies are evaluating new vaccine rules placed on employers that will go into effect on Jan. 4.
Dionne Christian, the Straz Center special assistant to the COO, on left, checks the Covid vaccination card of Bob Sheehan, 67, and his wife Kathy Sheehan, 66, from Carrollwood, at the Covid entry verification check point as the couple enters the David A. Straz Jr Center for the Performing Arts as the Broadway season reopens with Tootsie after a year of sitting out because of the pandemic on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021 in Tampa. Tampa Bay companies are evaluating new vaccine rules placed on employers that will go into effect on Jan. 4. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 5, 2021|Updated Nov. 5, 2021

Employers across Tampa Bay have been waiting, and perhaps bracing, for additional guidance on federal vaccine mandates going into 2022.

On Thursday, the federal government released the new requirements in the form of two rules: one covering for workers at companies with more than 100 employees, and the other related to workers at health care facilities that treat Medicare and Medicaid patients.

The large companies must require workers to get fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. After that date, any employee who is unvaccinated must provide weekly negative COVID tests. Employers are not required to pay for the tests and unvaccinated workers must also wear masks. For health care providers, there is no weekly testing option in lieu of vaccination — those workers must get the jab, by the same deadline.

HCA Healthcare, which runs Largo Medical Center, St. Petersburg General Hospital, Brandon Regional Hospital, Memorial Hospital of Tampa, and several other local campuses, said it is planning to comply with the new federal rules.

In a statement, the company said it has plans in place based on its operations in other states that have already required vaccines. “The majority of our colleagues have already been fully vaccinated,” a company spokesperson said. “We are working with our colleagues to assist those that have not yet received the vaccine.”

BayCare had already announced it would require employees to get vaccinated in September, when President Joe Biden previewed the rules. On Thursday, it indicated those plans were unchanged, and it was reviewing the federal requirements to “understand next steps for implementation.”

BayCare did, however, nod at the legal challenges creating more uncertainty around the rules. Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday that Florida would join other states in suing the Biden Administration over the requirements.

“Unless we are otherwise instructed by the courts, BayCare will need to comply to ensure we remain available to serve our community’s health care needs,” a spokesperson said.

AdventHealth, too, said it will be “closely monitoring legal challenges in the states we serve that may impact our compliance.”

Officials with AdventHealth said they intend to comply with the new mandate.

“Based on scientific evidence and what we see in our hospitals every day, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective at reducing both the risk of becoming infected and spreading the infection to others,” a statement read.

Some local hospitals were less specific about how they would proceed but said they have strongly encouraged their employees to get vaccinated.

Tampa General Hospital officials said they were still reviewing the rule “to determine how to comply with both federal and state law while keeping our team members, physicians and patients safe.” As of Nov. 1, 76 percent of Tampa General employees have received at least the first dose.

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Orlando Health, which owns Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, also said leadership is still reviewing the rule “and will take appropriate next steps.” Nearly 70 percent of employees company-wide are vaccinated, according to Orlando Health, but the hospital chain couldn’t provide a breakdown specific to the St. Petersburg hospital.

The new rules for large employers provide more flexibility than for health care providers, and several local companies said they needed more time to evaluate how to implement them before getting into specifics.

“We will, of course, follow any legal requirements taking into account what model works best for our company and our employees,” said KnowBe4 chief human resources officer Erika Lance. KnowBe4 is a cybersecurity company headquartered in Clearwater.

“I think that the modifications for not having required testing when an employee is working from home full-time makes this less complicated for most companies with these types of employees,” she said.

Jabil, a manufacturing services company headquartered in St. Petersburg, will continue to “strongly encourage” its workers get vaccinated, according to a company statement, and is looking over the new standards to “revisit our practices as required.”

In contrast, a spokesperson for TD Synnex, a technology distribution company co-headquartered in Largo that is on track to be Tampa Bay’s largest public company, said it falls under the rules for federal contractors, which means their employees must get shots without a testing alternative.

Reporting by the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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