TRAVERSE CITY — It should be crunch time for large U.S. companies and hospitals.

In November, President Joe Biden ordered hospitals that receive federal aid to ensure employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4. A parallel rule requires companies with more than 100 employees to either require vaccination or weekly testing for COVID-19.

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But compliance in Michigan has been pockmarked by exemption waivers, delayed by court rulings, and overshadowed by the rise of the Omnicron variant.

Still, officials at Munson Healthcare, which operates a network of hospitals in northwest Michigan, said the system reached full compliance with the presidential mandate ahead of its original deadline, which came and went Monday.

That’s a significant change from September, when the hospital reported a 70 percent rate of vaccination. Since then, that percentage jumped to 90 percent, according to Brian Lawson, a spokesperson for Munson Medical Center.

“Currently, 100 percent of our employees are compliant with the CMS regulations,” Lawson said. “Ninety percent of them have been vaccinated with the remaining 10 percent compliant through an approved exemption.”

Munson Healthcare had 5,002 employees as of June 2020, according to the nonprofit’s publicly available tax filings — which means up to 500 have received waivers from the vaccine requirement. Those employees are spread across the health care system’s eight hospitals and satellite medical facilities.

The hospital is one of several large area employers contacted by the Record-Eagle, which include McLaren Healthcare, Traverse City Area Public Schools, Northwestern Michigan College, Hagerty, and Go-Go Squeez, a food company which operates a large production site in Grawn.

Many said they were waiting for the resolution of an ongoing legal challenge to the mandate now before the U.S. Supreme Court. In an emergency hearing, the court has been asked by the Biden administration to rule on the order after it was challenged in appeals courts across the country, including in Michigan. The U.S. Department of Labor, which operates the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is being sued by Ohio and 26 other states.

As a result, Michigan regulators say they were allowed by OSHA to extend the compliance date to Jan. 24.

“The agency is closely monitoring the legal challenges while preparing for the deadline to adopt ETS2 to align with federal standards,” according to guidance issued by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO).

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Friday, and is expected to rule by mid-January.

If the mandate takes effect, it’s not clear how state OSHA agencies will enforce the mandate. Erica Quealy, Deputy Communications Director for the Michigan LEO, said the agency “does not determine compliance rates” for in-state companies under the criteria.

Nor is LEO tracking the number of employees who receive a waiver by way of a religious exemption, Quealy said. Religious exemptions can be written by religious officials, such as pastors, and are subject to approval by employers, according to federal guidance. Hospitals and employers decide whether employees have “sincerely-held beliefs” that conflict with the mandate.

Compliance with the hospital portion of the mandate has been a challenge for health care systems across Michigan, largely because of fear that mandate-ordered suspensions and terminations would leave hospitals shorthanded.

In October, Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System announced that 400 employees had left because of the requirement, with another 1,900 — 6 percent of the system’s workforce — requesting exemption, according to Bob Riney, the hospital’s chief operations officer.

McLaren Northern Michigan declined to share numbers regarding its compliance with the mandate.

“Like all healthcare providers across the country, we are awaiting the ruling from the Supreme Court to determine next steps,” said Todd Birch, president of McLaren Northern Michigan, in a statement.

“McLaren Health Care intends to fully comply with CMS and/or OSHA’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements that are appropriate to our health system. Until these challenges to the federal government mandates for COVID-19 vaccine and testing are resolved, McLaren Health Care will continue to work towards meeting the CMS and OSHA vaccine requirements.”

Companies also are waiting on the courts.

In Grand Traverse County that includes Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), the region’s largest school district. On Monday, TCAPS trustees briefly visited the issue to announce that they, too, would await a decision from the Supreme Court.

“At TCAPS, staff would be asked to comply with weekly testing if unvaccinated unless able to provide a waiver,” said Ginger Smith, the district’s executive director of marketing and communications. “When we did an original anonymous survey of employees a few months ago, we were at 90 percent vaccine compliance.”

We have not sought out additional information since the mandate is not yet required for us yet (we are a different bracket than hospitals, etc),” Smith said. “We will continue to monitor the status and comply as required.”

Superintendent John VanWagoner said the school district had been slowly preparing to comply with the mandate, should it be upheld by the Supreme Court.

Diana Fairbanks, a spokesperson for Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), said the college had also been preparing for the mandate’s implementation.

“NMC has been working with legal counsel to ensure the college remains in compliance with state and federal requirements as the situation evolves,” Fairbanks said. “NMC is developing a system to obtain employee vaccination status so we will be ready to proceed when the requirements are confirmed. The college has been committed to employee and student health, and limiting the disruption to learning since the start of the pandemic.”

Fairbanks said the college has about 600 employees.

A spokesperson for Go-Go Squeez, Monica Whitehurst, declined comment.

Reached on Wednesday, Kevin Fisher, a spokesperson for Hagerty, said the company did not have enough time to gather information on employee vaccination levels.

The mandate has also been overshadowed by the recent arrival of Omnicron. The new variant has barraged hospitals already reeling from the highly-contagious Delta, and in many cases reversed the slow migration of employees back to the workplace.

The CDC has said it is waiting on more data to determine whether Omnicron is more likely to cause breakthrough infections. Early studies have shown that Omnicron is more contagious, and that it may cause milder severity of sickness.

Regardless, Linda Vail, health officer for Ingham County, said the newest wave only reiterates the importance of the vaccine and the federal mandate.

“Those mandates are incredibly value,” Vail said. “They are still going to protect people who are at high risk for hospitalization and death.

“Unvaccinated people on the other hand — it’s a roll of the dice,” Vail said. “A very risky roll of the dice.”

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