N.Y. healthcare workers faced with an ultimatum: Get vaccinated or risk losing job

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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM/AP) – All healthcare workers in New York State have until the end of the day to get their first dose of the vaccine, file for an exemption, or risk suspension or termination from their job. In August days before his resignation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the new rule, and Gov. Kathy Hochul has continued his push to get all healthcare workers vaccinated. She held firm over the weekend about the mandate in the face of several lawsuits and pleas from employees to postpone it.

“My job, number one in this state, is to keep people safe. Clear, simple,” Gov. Hochul said in a press conference Monday morning.

Many challenge its constitutionality, as it does not have a religious exemption clause. Health care workers can apply for a religious exemption, at least for now. A federal judge on Oct. 12 will consider a legal challenge arguing that such exemptions are constitutionally required. The mandate is in full swing and Southern Tier medical groups are working to vaccinate as much of their staff as possible.

For Guthrie Health, 97 percent of their staff and 100 percent of their physicians are vaccinated. At Arnot Health, 95 percent of their staff is vaccinated or has filed an exemption with the company.

“All of my staff are vaccinated, so I will not be losing any public health staff due to the mandate,” Steuben County Health Director Darlene Smith said.

Chemung County Public Health did not reply to 18 News’ request for comment on Monday.

Local health leaders called for a test-out option, similar to what is allowed for faculty and staff in schools. The healthcare industry is the only vaccine mandate without a test-out option at this point.

“All along, we’ve advocated for the testing component,” Smith stated.

The Southern Tier healthcare systems issued a series of statements Monday but did not speak with the media directly. Many are left wondering what will happen if staff is suspended or lose their jobs. Guthrie announced that employees who do not comply will be placed on a suspension for one week, where they have to get vaccinated or file an exemption. Arnot Health has paused all elective surgeries until further notice.

“It’s just this domino effect that is going to be crippling if staff within the health care facilities don’t get vaccinated and they end up losing their jobs,” Smith continued.

Over the weekend, Gov. Hochul announced there will be an expedited process to allow out-of-state healthcare workers to practice in the Empire State. Also, retired nurses and physicians with lapsed licenses may be able to return to the field. Gov. Hochul also said she will sign an executive order, granting her the ability to deploy the medical units of the National Guard if regions are struggling to retain staff.

“It remains to be seen if local health care facilities will need those contingency plans, and how well those contingency plans will actually work,” Smith added.

The rules apply not just to people like doctors and nurses, but also to others who work in health care institutions, like food service workers, administrators, and cleaners. Employees who refuse the shots face suspensions and termination. And workers terminated because of refusal to be vaccinated are not eligible for unemployment insurance without a doctor-approved request for medical accommodation.

Noncompliant employees at hospitals run by the State University of New York face “immediate suspension and pending termination” on Tuesday, according to a memo sent to administrators by Chancellor Jim Malatras.

About 84% of over 450,000 hospital workers in New York were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to state data. Nursing home data, which was through Sunday, showed about 89% of nursing home workers were fully vaccinated.

As the vaccination deadline loomed, hospitals and nursing homes came up with contingency plans for staff shortages that included cutting back on non-critical services and limiting admissions at nursing homes. The mandate comes as hospitals are already reeling from staff shortages fueled in part by workers retiring and employees seeking other jobs after 18 months of the pandemic.

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