Cindy Ord / Getty Images
New York state officials are preparing for staffing shortages when the state’s vaccination mandate goes into effect Monday, and could reach out to the National Guard – as well as health professionals from other states and countries – to help.
Governor Kathy Hochul released a plan on Saturday outlining the steps she could take to increase the workforce if a large number of hospital and nursing home workers fail to meet the state deadline.
“We are still in the fight against COVID to protect our loved ones and we must fight with every tool available to us,” she said.
That could mean declaring a state of emergency to allow healthcare professionals licensed outside New York, as well as young graduates and retirees, to practice there. Other options include employing medically trained members of the National Guard, working with the federal government to deploy emergency medical teams to local health and medical systems, and “exploring ways to expedite visa applications for healthcare professionals.”
The state Department of Labor has also issued guidelines clarifying that workers terminated for vaccination will not be eligible for unemployment insurance “without a valid, doctor-approved application for medical accommodation”.
All health care workers in New York’s hospitals and nursing homes are required to receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Monday, according to state regulations and an order placed last month by former Governor Andrew Cuomo. Staff at other facilities, including home care, hospice and adult care facilities, must be vaccinated by October 7th.
The latest figures suggest the state still has a way to go: by Wednesday, 84% of all hospital workers were fully vaccinated. And 81% of all adult care facility staff and 77% of care home staff were fully vaccinated as of Thursday.
Nationwide and nationwide, the health systems are already struggling with staff shortages.
Critics of the requirement have challenged it through protests and lawsuits, North Country Public Radio reports, against mandatory vaccination and the lack of exemptions for religious objections.
At this point, healthcare workers have the option to apply for a religious exception until at least October 12 if a federal judge is considering a legal challenge in favor of such an exception.
When hospitals prepared their contingency plans late last week – which for many include restricting certain procedures – Hochul stuck to the deadline. She told reporters Thursday that there are “no excuses” for workers who refuse to be vaccinated and called the impending shortages “totally preventable.”
How health systems prepare for the deadline
Hospital systems and nursing homes across the state encourage their employees to get vaccinated and prepare for disruption if they don’t. Some restrict elective operations, restrict admission, and retain volunteers.
Northwell Health, the state’s largest health care provider, has held meetings with employees to convince “thousands of objecters,” reports The Associated Press. About 90% of its 74,000 active employees had been vaccinated by Thursday, though the hospital said it doesn’t expect full compliance and more than 3,000 retirees, students and volunteers are on standby.
According to the AP, the Erie County Medical Center Corporation in Buffalo expects about 10% of its workforce (approximately 400 workers) may not be vaccinated by Monday and is ready to potentially suspend elective inpatient surgeries, reduce ambulance hours and admission temporarily discontinue transfers to the intensive care unit.
As reported by MediaFrolic, Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville, NY said it would end maternity service this weekend because dozens of employees quit instead of getting vaccinated.
Unvaccinated workers at New York City’s 11 public hospitals (which lead a compliance rate of around 88%) are being put on unpaid vacation but could return to work if vaccinated soon, reports CNN.
Some hospital systems are seeing increases in vaccination rates. New York Presbyterians, for example, issued their own midnight notice Wednesday mandate and reported that only about 250 of their 48,000 employees failed to comply.
The University of Rochester Medical Center said in a statement that 99% of professional medical staff and 91% of all staff in its six hospitals had been partially or fully vaccinated since last week.
Dr. Michael Apostolakos, chief medical officer, said critical care and many critical services continue uninterrupted – but non-mandate staffing shortages are causing a break in some services.
Patients will experience longer waiting times at routine appointments, some staff will be asked to take on additional duties, and beds may be temporarily closed, Apostolakos said in a statement.
Part of a national conversation
New York isn’t the only place requiring vaccinations for health care workers – California announced a similar policy this summer, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is also requiring frontline health workers to get vaccinated.
President Biden announced earlier this month that the 17 million health care workers in facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding will need to be vaccinated or regularly tested, with the details set to be set in the coming weeks.
While such workplace demands are supported by many public health professionals – and more than half of nurses, according to a recent survey – some politicians and hospital officials have voiced their concern. And that’s especially true in rural areas, where vaccination rates are low and it’s already difficult to set up.
Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told MediaFrolic that the Biden government has a mandate due to stagnating vaccination rates in hospitals across the country. She noted that while many hospitals are concerned about staff shortages, staff who are absent from work due to illness or quarantine are also an issue of both staffing and safety.
“It is very clear from the data that unvaccinated staff affects both the patients who come to the facilities and their colleagues,” she said.
It remains to be seen how great the shortage will be, in New York and elsewhere. However, one state has already issued a vaccination mandate for health workers and could serve as a data point.
The governor of Maine announced a health care worker mandate in mid-August, and hospitals are only reporting a handful of resignations so far – though enforcement doesn’t begin until October 29.