NEW YORK (AP) – Hospitals and nursing homes in New York are bracing for the possibility that a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers could lead to shortages of staff when it comes into effect on Monday.
Doctors and nurses – along with support staff like restaurant workers and cleaners – have until September 27 to receive at least their first vaccine in one of the country’s most aggressive plans to protect patients.
Within days of the deadline, many still hadn’t done so. That left the prospect that thousands of healthcare workers could be forced to quit their jobs next week.
With no sign of backing down from Governor Kathy Hochul, hospitals and nursing homes were making contingency plans that included cutting back on elective surgeries and, in one hospital, stopping maternity services. Retirement homes restricted admissions. The state’s largest healthcare provider, Northwell Health, kept thousands of volunteers on hold.
“We would like to have more time to be able to meet and implement the immunization mandate, because at the end of the day this is a situation where we are very concerned about our ability to care for patients,” said Tom Quatroche, CEO of the Erie County Medical Center Corporation, which operates a busy 573-bed hospital in Buffalo.
It predicts that about 10% of its workforce, or 400 staff, may still not be vaccinated by Monday. As part of an emergency plan, the hospital said it would suspend elective surgeries for inpatients, temporarily stop accepting intensive care transfers from other institutions and reduce hours in outpatient clinics.
Hochul, a Democrat, stuck to the deadline Thursday, telling reporters at a press conference that there was “no excuse” for those who refused to honor the mandate, announced this summer.
“Everyone in your care has the right to know that there is no chance that they will be infected by the person responsible for protecting them and their health,” she said Thursday.
New York isn’t the only state requiring healthcare workers to get vaccinated. But he has been particularly aggressive in pushing for broader vaccinations to help limit the spread of the virus in a location that was once the center of the ongoing global pandemic.
Earlier this week, a judge refused to stop New York City’s plan to require teachers in the nation’s largest public school system to be vaccinated, a term that is also due to begin on Monday.
The impending deadline also raised concerns about the potential suspension of thousands of teachers and school staff on Monday.
United Teachers’ Federation president Michael Mulgrew on Thursday called on the city to delay the rule, saying “our schools are not ready.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said he was convinced the holdouts would get the shot this weekend rather than suffer a loss of wages. And if not, he said, “we have thousands and thousands of experienced substitute teachers vaccinated ready to go.”
The healthcare workers’ tenure comes as hospitals are already reeling from a staff shortage due in part to growing demand, workers retiring and tired employees looking for another job afterwards. 18 months of pandemic.
There is one option for workers who do not want to be vaccinated and that is to request a religious exemption. This would buy them at least until October 12, when a federal judge considers a court challenge arguing that such exemptions are constitutionally required.
As time passed on the healthcare mandate, Northwell Health was trying to persuade thousands of holdouts to get vaccinated, including one-on-one meetings with staff members. System chief of staff Maxine Carrington said they were seeing a lot more scheduled appointments.
“I had personal conversations with members of the team, and one of them asked me, ‘Are you really going to fire us on the 27th? And I said, let’s put that aside for a minute and let’s talk about saving your life. Why don’t you want to get vaccinated? Carrington said.
She said staff who refuse vaccines “will no longer be qualified for employment.”
As of Thursday, about 90% of Northwell’s 74,000 active staff had been vaccinated. Still, the hospital system admitted it did not expect full compliance and had more than 3,000 retirees, volunteers and healthcare students on standby, if needed on Monday.
The University of Rochester Medical Center, in the state’s fourth largest city, announced a two-week hiatus from scheduling new elective procedures at its Strong Memorial Hospital starting Monday. It is also temporarily closing two emergency care centers this week.
A wild card is that no one knows if a flurry of healthcare workers will simply wait until the last minute to get a jab.
A sign of hope: New York-Presbyterian, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, had imposed an earlier vaccination deadline on its employees – midnight Wednesday – and reported that less than 250 of its 48 000 employees did not comply.
Spokeswoman Alexandra Langan said in an email: “For those who have chosen not to comply, they will not continue to work at NYP.”
New York State averages just under 5,000 new cases of COVID-19 per day with about 2,300 people hospitalized. It’s much worse than at the end of June, when around 300 people tested positive every day across the state.
Hill reported from Albany. Associated Press editors Michelle L. Price, in New York, and Marina Villeneuve, in Albany, contributed to this report.