Atrium Health administering COVID-19 vaccine to non-critical staff, despite state regulations

Updated: Dec. 23, 2020 at 7:01 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Atrium Health is scheduling non-critical employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, despite state regulations aimed at ensuring those who interact with COVID-19 patients and the elderly are inoculated first.

Atrium’s policy of allowing non-critical employees came to light late Tuesday night when Katie McKiever, a social media manager at Atrium, tweeted that she and her husband were scheduled to receive the first dose of the vaccine on January 5.

McKiever’s husband, John, is a senior web specialist at Atrium, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Both employees appear to fall outside the guidelines set by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services for individuals eligible to be vaccinated in the first tier of people, known as Tier 1a.

The N.C. DHHS website defines Tier 1a as the following:

Phase 1a vaccines will first go to health care workers critical to caring for patients with COVID-19 or at high risk for COVID-19 exposure because of their work duties. That includes people:

  • caring for patients with COVID-19
  • working directly in areas where patients with COVID-19 are cared for, including staff responsible for cleaning, providing food service, and maintenance in those areas
  • performing procedures at high risk of aerosolization on patients with COVID-19 (e.g., intubation, bronchoscopy, suctioning, invasive dental procedures, invasive specimen collection, CPR)
  • handling decedents with COVID-19

Health care workers administering vaccine in initial mass vaccination clinics are part of this first phase. All long-term care staff and residents qualify for Phase 1a. Vaccines in most long-term care facilities are being managed by the federal government through the newly created Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program with CVS and Walgreens.

By comparison, the Mecklenburg County Health Department sent a release on Wednesday touting the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine at the department and the health department’s plans to administer the vaccine to emergency medical technicians and paramedics, health department workers who will be administering the vaccine and elderly residents of long-term care facilities.

Prior to the vaccine’s arrival at the county Wednesday, none of those populations had access to the vaccine.

Multiple spokespeople for Atrium Health refused to answer questions for this story but defended the hospital’s decision to vaccinate employees whose jobs do not involve caring for those who have COVID-19 or that do not risk exposure to the virus.

“Under guidance provided by the state and federal regulators, all healthcare workers are considered Priority 1a to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Before anyone can receive the vaccine, the state must approve each person to receive the vaccine,” hospital spokeswoman Kate Gaier said.

After being presented with the DHHS definition of the 1a group, a second spokesman -- Chris Berger, the hospital’s vice president for enterprise communications -- said the hospital stood by the assertion that all Atrium employees could receive the vaccine under the state’s guidelines for 1a distribution.

At press time, Berger had not sent documents requested by a WBTV reporter showing the state had approved the McKievers and other non-critical Atrium employees to receive the vaccine.

Previous: Who’s getting stuck first? Vaccine details still unclear as NC hospitals receive first shipments

Gaier said the hospital had doses of the vaccine that would go to waste if the hospital did not vaccine non-critical staff.

“Our vaccine allocations are based on delivering a certain number of weekly doses, so we have scheduled appointments to make sure no dose of this valuable, life-saving vaccine goes unused or to waste,” she said.

A spokeswoman for DHHS says the state does not approve individual vaccine recipients, contrary to what Atrium claims.

“The state does not have the ability to individually approve recipients of tens of thousands of doses each week. Hospitals must confirm that the people they vaccinate meet the guidance. As part of the vaccine provider agreement, all vaccine providers agreed to follow the state’s vaccine guidance. Balancing maximum impact of the vaccine with priority needs of North Carolinians requires providers to follow the state guidance as doses are distributed across the state each week,” DHHS spokeswoman Amy Ellis said in a statement.

The DHHS spokeswoman also issued a statement pushing back on Atrium’s claims that all hospital staff are in the priority group to get vaccinated.

“As part of the vaccine provider agreement, all vaccine providers agreed to follow the state’s vaccine guidance. Currently, only health care workers who care for patients with COVID-19, those working on the vaccination rollout, and long-term care staff and residents may be vaccinated,” Ellis said.

“Future vaccine allocations will take into account adherence to the guidance.”

News of Atrium’s wide distribution of the vaccine comes as groups in a number of sectors push to have their employees get early access to the vaccine.

One such group is the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which represents prison workers, among others.

At least five prison employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, a prison leader recently told lawmakers, and outbreaks continue to be reported among inmates at prisons around the state.

“This is bullshit,” Ardis Watkins, SEANC’s executive director, said upon hearing that non-critical staff at Atrium were being scheduled to receive the vaccine.

“How can hospital administrators who don’t even see patients take precedence over essential state workers working in facilities riddled with the Virus?” Watkins asked.

DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen recently told the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network that hospitals were, essentially, being allocated vaccine doses based on the honor system.

Cohen said hospitals, health departments and pharmacies receiving the vaccine had to agree to distribute the vaccine in line with the state’s guidelines but, other than that, it was up to the individual facilities to decide who gets vaccinated and when.

“Before we allocate anymore, they have to show us well, how much have you used, where has it gone?” Cohen explained, saying state health officials will further regulation future vaccine distribution based on data it gets back.

“We’re going to have to adjust, go back and and figure out how to make sure that we’re getting everyone.”

McKiever tweeted the following statement Wednesday afternoon in response to questions she’d gotten about her Tweet from Tuesday night:

“I’m fortunate to work for a healthcare system that was among the first to receive the vaccine in this region. Atrium Health is vaccinating frontline healthcare workers first, with people like me, who are in supporting roles, offered appointments in the coming weeks. Doing what we do, my team and I frequently go to our hospitals and locations to support the outstanding work being done and share it with the public. After going through the state’s online process and getting approval from the state for the vaccine, I consider myself very fortunate to be among those scheduled to receive the vaccine and am so excited to get it. I completely understand the questions as I’ve asked them too. I have been told it is my time for the vaccine, and rather than miss this chance and have the vaccine go to waste, I jumped at this opportunity. My hope is that when each person’s time comes to get the vaccine, they will do so as well. My continued thanks to all of our healthcare heroes. Let’s continue to mask up, practice social distancing, and use proper hand hygiene to help protect them and all of us.”

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