Traverse City News and Events

As Munson Moves To Level Orange, Hospital, Other Employers React To Biden Order

By Beth Milligan | Sept. 11, 2021

Munson Healthcare moved to pandemic level orange this week, a move that represents the second-most serious level in the hospital system and was prompted by increased testing positivity rates and system-wide “bed capacity and operational concerns.” As Munson grapples with rising cases, it is also exploring the ramifications of a sweeping order issued by President Joe Biden Thursday requiring mandatory vaccinations or regular COVID-19 testing across numerous industries. The Ticker spoke with Munson and other local employers about what the order could mean for Traverse City workers.

Biden’s order came one day after Munson formally moved to level orange in its pandemic response plan, a stage characterized by “widespread community cases locally.” The only stage more serious is level red, characterized by an “overwhelming number of local cases beyond capacity of the healthcare system.” Munson Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Dianne Michalek says the decision was based on criteria including the number of new regional cases per 100,000 (100-199 new cases in the last two weeks), regional positive testing percentages (10-19.99 percent), and concerns about hospital impacts due to bed and operational capacity.

As of Friday, there were 29 patients at Munson’s Traverse City location alone hospitalized with COVID-19. Grand Traverse County is now in the “E” or “red” risk level range for community transmission on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scale, the highest level that comes with a recommendation for everyone in the county to wear masks in all public indoor settings. Munson’s level-orange status means all waiting rooms will close immediately, the hospital’s remote work policy has been extended through January, universal masking remains in place in all locations, and visitation remains limited to one visitor per patient per facility, with exceptions for NICU, pediatric, and end-of-life patients. Michalek says Munson has begun “selectively rescheduling some elective procedures at the Medical Center, however there are currently no broad plans to do so organization-wide. We will continue to evaluate this and make adjustments as needed.”

While several hospital systems in Michigan have issued vaccine mandates for their staff – including Henry Ford Health System, Beaumont, and Spectrum – Munson Healthcare has not yet taken that step. Biden’s order, however, could have major policy ramifications for Munson and other employers. Key parts of the president’s “action plan” to stop the Delta-driven COVID surge include requiring all federal workers and contractors to get vaccinated; requiring private employers with 100+ workers to require vaccinations or weekly testing of staff; requiring healthcare workers to get vaccinated; and requiring employees of Head Start and other federal education programs to get vaccinated. The order also urges governors to require vaccinations for school district employees, recommends event venues require proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests, doubles fines for travelers who refuse to mask up, and provides a plan to begin increasing booster shot availability by September 20.

Michalek says Munson has been “thoughtfully and thoroughly reviewing the scientific evidence” and interviewing experts for the last six months about the ethics, legal implications, and impacts of mandating COVID-19 vaccines for Munson staff. She says the hospital is particularly studying “the operational impact on our ability to continue to keep services open, staffed, and available for our patients who count on us” if vaccines were required. With many healthcare workers experiencing burnout during the pandemic, some hospitals that have mandated vaccines have faced staff lawsuits or employee resignations. Michalek says Munson’s “ultimate goal has always been that 100 percent of Munson Healthcare workers be vaccinated” – noting that vaccines are “safe, effective, and critically important to saving lives and bringing an end to this pandemic” – and says the hospital will evaluate the implications of Biden’s order.

“As always, we intend to fully comply with all federal regulations and look forward to learning more details about the specific regulations and timing from the federal government…we will make further announcements as we finalize our plan to reach our goal of a 100 percent vaccination rate for Munson Healthcare workers,” Michalek says.

Other employers are also wrestling with the implications of Biden’s order. The Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are expected to issue guidelines in the coming weeks laying out a timeframe for businesses to comply with the new requirements. While those timelines could be delayed by court challenges, businesses could be fined as much as $14,000 per violation by OSHA once the rules take effect. Cherry Republic and Hagerty are just two of several local private businesses that have more than 100 employees and will be impacted by the order.

“President Biden's new plan will definitely affect our business and the individuals who make up our workforce…this new federal vaccine mandate will be a big task for many employers, so we know we're not alone,” says Cherry Republic HR Director Nicole Agruda. “Fortunately, for Cherry Republic, we already have over 70 percent of our staff fully vaccinated. That number has been achieved so far through encouraging the vaccine with timely and informative communication. We are very dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of our staff, as well as the communities where we live and work.” Agruda says Cherry Republic is waiting to see what OSHA or the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) issues for instructions and is preparing for next steps. “These new changes at the federal level may present some challenges, but I know we'll be able to work through them,” she says.

Hagerty, which employs more than 1,500 staff, is similarly investigating the ramifications of Biden’s order, according to a statement issued by the company to The Ticker. “The continuation of the pandemic is concerning,” Hagerty wrote. “We have been planning different approaches to keep our team safe as we navigate a return to office, business travel, and other business operations. We are reviewing the details of the new vaccine mandate and will adhere to any guidelines that are necessary to ensure the well-being of our team members and clients. We will communicate any changes to our return-to-office strategy to our team members as soon as possible.”

How the order will impact other industries – such as education – remains to be seen, according to local leaders. Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Ginger Smith says it is still “too early to understand the proposal and know if or how it applies to public schools, as well as federal programming.” Northwestern Michigan College, which has 730 employees (including both full and part-time staff), is “reviewing the new mandates with legal counsel and other college partners like the Michigan Community College Association to better understand how this will impact NMC,” according to an email sent to the college community Friday. While NMC has not yet mandated vaccinations on campus, the college noted that a survey of NMC employees shows “most have chosen to receive the vaccine,” with NMC continuing to encourage staff and students to get vaccinated.

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