Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp. is requiring all employees to be vaccinated by the end of the month, with owner and CEO Lou Kennedy saying she hopes other private employers in the state will follow the West Columbia-headquartered company's lead.
"I believe this is what's right to do and I really hope business colleagues of mine around the state will do the same," Kennedy said during a Zoom call today with reporters. "I feel like it is a good move for the private sector to do this. I feel like we can lead the way if we show our ability to get vaccinated."
All Nephron employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have at least received the first dose of a two-dose vaccine by Aug. 27, according to a company-wide email sent Monday morning, unless an employee has "an exemption or reasonable accommodation" provided to the company's human resources department by that date. The second dose of a two-dose vaccine must be received no later than Sept. 30.
All new hires at the generic respiratory drug manufacturer, which recently completed a $215.8 million expansion and announced the formation of a new company, Nephron Nitrile, to manufacture PPP equipment, must provide proof of vaccination before their first day of employment, and all visitors and vendors must be fully vaccinated to enter Nephron property.
Employees who do not comply will be terminated, Kennedy said.
"I'll be very sad if we lose even the first person, (but) we need to be healthy, and I think the only way to do that is to get more folks vaccinated," she said.
As a manufacturer of generic inhalation solutions as well as pre-filled, sterile syringes used in hospitals nationwide, Nephron cannot afford to risk having to curtail its operations if employees get sick, Kennedy said.
"This is what we have to do," she said. "Our drugs are expected. ... We cannot shut down. It's needed."
Kennedy, who said she made the decision to require vaccinations on Friday, said she informed S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster of that decision on Sunday.
"I wanted him to be aware of this bold move we're making today," said Kennedy, who said the governor told her it was her right as a private business sector owner to do what she thought best for her family and her business. "He appreciated the heads up. It was a very brief call."
McMaster, who attended last month's announcement of Nephron Nitrile, a new $100 million company which will manufacture nitrile gloves and create 250 jobs, has said S.C. schools will not be allowed to mandate masks and that health experts are exaggerating the danger posed by COVID-19 and the delta variant responsible for the majority of new cases.
McMaster urged private businesses to help with vaccination efforts during a February visit to Nephron's vaccination site, provided through a partnership with Dominion Energy.
Kennedy said a conversation with the CEO of a local hospital convinced her of the danger not just of surging COVID cases but to other patients who may need hospital beds in increasingly short supply.
According to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control statistics, updated each Tuesday, 78.6% of the state's 11,345 hospital beds are in use, with 1,303 of those in intensive care units. COVID-19 patients make up 13% of hospitalized patients, with 27% of those patients in ICUs and 15% among the 532 users of 1,932 ventilators.
In Lexington County, 93.8% of hospital beds are occupied, including 60 of 61 ICU beds. COVID-19 patients occupy 141 beds, 42 in ICU, and account for 35 of the 47 patients currently ventilated.
In Richland County, 69% of hospital beds are occupied. The county has 101 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, 28 of whom are in ICU beds and 17 on ventilators.
As of Aug. 13, the seven-day average of nationwide new cases increased 18.4% to 114,190, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That average is 65% lower than the peak observed on Jan. 10, 2021, and 882.8% higher than the lowest value observed on June 19, 2021.
Kennedy shared a personal hospital experience of staying with her mother, who died three weeks ago of an aortic dissection, saying she heard patients coughing and wheezing throughout the night.
"It's dire," she said.
Kennedy said lines at Nephron's testing and vaccination sites near the company's Saxe-Gotha Industrial Park facilities off Interstate 77 had stretched to 25 to 30 people on Monday morning after tapering off to 10 people a day a few weeks ago. Employees can be vaccinated on-site, which should streamline record-keeping, she said.
Kennedy said she is not concerned about potential backlash, including any legal action, to her decision, comparing vaccinations to the protective gear Nephron lab workers wear.
"Nephron does have a legal right to protect the health and safety of its workforce," she said.
Nationwide, several large companies have mandated vaccinations for employees, including Walmart, Disney, Google and Facebook. In South Carolina, five Medical University of South Carolina employees were fired last month for not receiving vaccinations in accordance with a company policy established in April.
CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the largest health care company in the mid-Atlantic region, announced today it would make COVID-19 vaccinations a requirement for its workforce, board of directors and guests.
Nephron employs almost 2,000 full- and part-time workers, apprentices and interns, as well as participants in an educator program that provides after-hours jobs for state teachers. The company has an annual revenue of $196.85 million, according to Dun & Bradstreet.
Kennedy said the company is working to obtain a firm number of employees who are already fully vaccinated.
"Everybody's going to have an opinion. People may resign or hold out," she said. "But I think leaders have to make tough decisions. I'm the leader here, and I have to protect my own. We'll just deal with whatever comes our way."