Next Challenge for Hospitals: Weighing Employees' Religious Vaccine Exemption Requests

Health care systems are tasked with determining which of their employees have legitimate religious reasons to opt out of COVID-19 vaccines

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San Diego County hospitals have been struggling with staffing shortages and pandemic fatigue among health care workers. Now, they also have to determine whether their employees have legitimate religious reasons to opt out of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Sharp HealthCare, the region’s largest health system, has received more than 700 religious exemption requests. UC San Diego Health has received about 610 and Scripps Health received 438. That’s about 3% of each health system’s workforce. These religious requests are currently under review, and it is unclear how many of these employees directly deal with patients.

To qualify for a religious exemption, the person seeking to obtain one needs to provide proof of “sincerely held beliefs” against vaccinations on religious grounds. It is up to the employer to determine what reaches that threshold.

On Monday, the San Diego City Council's COVID-19 Response and Recovery Committee met with leaders from San Diego's hospital systems to discuss the pandemic's impact on county hospitals. During the meeting, Dr. Ghazla Sharieff of Scripps Health brought up the religious exemption requests.

“Most of those are along the fetal cell line argument, and ‘my body is my temple,’ so those are the ones we are working through. We would love some state guidance on what that really means,” Dr. Sharieff said.

The unvaccinated are causing a strain on local hospitals, the heads of San Diego's hospitals laid out for the city council Monday. NBC 7's Priya Sridhar has more.

The California Department of Public Health declined an interview with NBC 7, but in a written statement said, “The Public Health Order requires only that workers provide the operator of the facility a declination form, signed by the worker, stating that the worker is declining vaccination based on religious beliefs. Individual employers however may require additional information or have stricter requirements.”

Deciding whether to approve these requests will be difficult for employers, according to employment attorney Josh Gruenberg.

“It’s a monumental task for the employers to hold these interactive process meetings that can range anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to gauge how sincere the employee’s belief is,” Gruenberg said. “It's not enough to simply say, ‘I believe in God and my religion forbids the vaccine.’”

NBC 7 Investigates obtained a copy of the religious exemption request form used by Scripps Health. It asks employees for the name of their religion, when they first embraced their beliefs/practices/observances, and how that conflicts with the COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

UC San Diego is using a third-party administrator to collect its employees' forms and vet their legitimacy. Employees who are not approved have eight weeks to get the vaccine or start a disciplinary process. Health care workers granted religious or medical exemptions are required by the state to wear masks and undergo coronavirus testing twice per week if they work in clinical roles.

At Scripps Health, 90% of staff are fully vaccinated. Sharp and UC San Diego are at 89%.

After Sept. 30, all health care workers in California will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. At Sharp, workers who don’t comply will be put on unpaid administrative leave.

“Folks are feeling cornered,” Gruenberg said. “They’re feeling like they just don’t have a way out. And so they’re grasping at the religious exemption.” Gruenberg continues, “You have to decide how important this issue is to you. Do you really want to lose your career over a jab?”

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