Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel, PhD held a town hall Nov. 5 to discuss the recent presidential executive order that requires federal contractors, including those within the University System of Georgia, to comply with COVID-19 guidance from the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.
This executive order issued by President Joe Biden requires COVID-19 vaccinations for all federal contractors, which includes approximately 84% of the employees at Augusta University, Keel said. At this time, the order does not impact employees of Augusta University Health.
“When you hear the words ‘presidential executive order,’ this is not something that’s disseminating directly from Augusta University. Quite the opposite,” Keel said during the town hall meeting at the Natalie and Lansing B. Lee Jr. Auditorium on the Health Sciences Campus. “This is something that Augusta University is doing, along with all of our brother and sister institutions across this state and, indeed, across this country, to meet this particular executive order that has been issued by the United States president.”
A total of 5,177 employees at Augusta University will be required to document their COVID-19 vaccination, Keel said.
“That’s 84% of our workforce,” Keel said, explaining that percentage is similar to other Research 1 universities in the state, because they engage in high levels of contracted research activity. “These individuals have been identified by virtue of the fact that they either have a federal contract or they are associated with a particular contract. So, the 84% of our workforce number is specific to our campus.”
Keel acknowledged that percentage may change as the university continues to review its federal contracts associated with its employees.
“As we continue to do an exhaustive review of our contracts and of the buildings in which these contracts are implemented, there may very well be more employees identified, so it just speaks to this need that everybody needs to be patient and stay tuned,” he said. “So far, we’ve identified 55 buildings across the entire Augusta University campus that are impacted by this order.”
Employees impacted at AU
Keel wanted to make clear that this announcement regarding the federal order is not, at this time, impacting employees of AU Health.
Employees of AU Health are subject to separate regulations mandating vaccination issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Keel explained.
“What we are talking about here are the university employees,” Keel said, adding that the Medical College of Georgia and Augusta University Medical Center will likely have different requirements to address this federal mandate. “So please stay tuned. More information is coming regarding the health system and what potential impacts there may be, and we will certainly keep you informed along those lines as well.”
Specifically, Keel said all full-time or part-time employees at Augusta University, including student workers working alone or in conjunction with a covered federal contract, will be impacted by this federal mandate.
“Employees who perform support functions, such as human resources, billing, legal review and other roles are impacted by this executive order,” he said. “Employees who are in the same workplace as other employees working on or in support of federal contracts, but do not themselves work directly or in conjunction with a federal contract are impacted by this order. Now, on the one hand, that’s very plain and simple; on the other hand, it’s also very complicated, and we have been working diligently to make sure that we identify the right people, the proper people and let them know that they have been identified.”
According to Keel, employees on the university side who are impacted by this mandate should have already received an email stating, “The employees in your division have been identified as falling into one of the categories for which vaccination is required.”
“So, 84% of our employees at AU have been identified as needing the vaccine, but it’s not 100%. This is not an across-the-board mandate for all AU employees,” Keel insisted. “It covers a lot, there’s no doubt, but it is not an across-the-board mandate. And we have gone to extraordinary means to identify those people who meet the criteria for this requirement.”
Those employees who received the email will be expected to submit confirmation of their vaccination status and to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in compliance with the executive order’s deadline of Jan. 4, 2022, Keel said.
“I’m told that, of the 5,177 employees, the majority, if not all of them, have been contacted or their divisions have been contacted in which they work, to let them know that they fall into this category,” Keel said.
As of right now, there is a clear definition of an employee who is “fully vaccinated,” Keel said.
“To be considered fully vaccinated you must have two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Jan. 4, 2022,” Keel said. “If you’ve received mixed doses of Pfizer and Moderna, you are also considered fully vaccinated. And at this point in time, boosters are not required and not part of this requirement. So, if you are taking the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, you have to have your second dose by Jan. 4. Or if you’re taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you have to be vaccinated by that single dose by Jan. 4, 2022.”
The 5,177 employees impacted by this federal mandate will soon be provided instructions on how to upload the required vaccination documentation utilizing a software system called Qualtrics, Keel said.
“If you have been identified as someone who needs to get vaccinated, we strongly encourage you to go ahead and get vaccinated,” Keel said. “You will be given documentation at the time, and stay tuned as to how you will upload this documentation through this system.”
Keel explained the university will be evaluating employee requests for religious and medical exemptions.
“There are exemptions that are associated with this requirement,” Keel said. “Religious exemptions must be based on a sincerely held religious belief, and prior vaccinations for other purposes may be considered in this evaluation. Medical and disability accommodations must be supported by a physician or health care provider determination and will be considered individually through a narrative process with the employee.”
However, Keel said the exemptions for this mandate are “very limited.”
“If you believe you have a sincerely held religious belief, or if you believe you have a medical accommodation or a medical reason for not receiving the vaccine, again, please stay tuned for more details on how to do that,” he said.
While student workers are impacted by this new guideline, the general student body at Augusta University is not, Keel said.
“Those students that are employed here on this campus are required to follow this executive order, but not students in general,” he said.
Just last week, President Biden also announced plans for a federal mandate that states companies with at least 100 employees must require their employees to get vaccinated or have employees who are not vaccinated get tested for COVID-19 once a week. However, a federal appeals panel on Saturday temporarily blocked the new coronavirus vaccine mandate for large businesses.
“So, the question is, can you choose to be tested once a week instead of getting the vaccine, if you fall into one of these categories?” Keel said. “And the answer is: We just don’t know yet. That has not been determined. We are working very closely with our system office to get guidance on this and, as soon as that determination is made, then we’ll get the information out to you with instructions as to how to go about this. As it is right now, that exemption is not in place.”
There is also no exemption for those employees who want to take an antigen test to show they have natural immunity from a prior COVID-19 infection, Keel said.
“You still have to get vaccinated,” Keel said. “Antigen tests or natural immunity are not acceptable in lieu of vaccination.”
Keel will host a second town hall that will be held virtually at 3:30 p.m. Nov. 12 to update employees regarding the federal order. In the meantime, Keel strongly encouraged all employees to get vaccinated to protect themselves from COVID-19.
“The vaccine works, the vaccine is safe and the vaccine is what’s going to get us out of this COVID nightmare that we are in,” Keel said. “So, we strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated. And we ask that all of you, whether you’re vaccinated or not, to please work with us as we work through this pandemic and as we work through this particular presidential executive order.”
The next town hall on Nov. 12 will exclusively be livestreamed. The university will utilize its COVID-19 website as well as Jagwire to continue providing details on this federal order, but unvaccinated employees remain encouraged to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Vaccination clinics are readily available for employees. Please register today.