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Officials in New York are worried that COVID-19 vaccine mandates for workers will contribute to staffing shortages for healthcare facilities.

State Senator Anthony Palumbo and Assemblyman Fred Thiele wrote to the governor Sept. 3 stating, “Many of the facilities in our districts have reached out fearing an impending crisis of care that a widespread staffing shortage would create due to the vaccine mandate.”

The letter says healthcare workers cannot afford the high costs of housing on the East End and there is no backup labor pool in the area. The letter asks lawmakers asked for the governor’s plan of action in case healthcare facilities need to “refuse admissions or divert patients in a situation where they are ill-equipped to provide quality care due to a lack of personnel.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul acknowledged the issue during a press conference days later. The state will hit a “crisis level” with healthcare staffing, partially because of vaccine mandates. But she also doubled down on the necessity for the vaccine to keep workers healthy against the Delta variant of the virus.

“I know that there are individuals who are reluctant to take the vaccine and work in these settings,” Hochul said. She added that “we have to realize that there is a tremendous risk involved when someone who’s there to take care of people’s health needs.” 

Hochul said the state is working with unions that represent current employees to “accommodate their concerns and their needs,” which can possibly include testing requirements. She also wants to find more staff for these facilities.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed the mandate Aug. 16, a week before he resigned. The deadline for hospitals and nursing home employees to get their first dose is Sept. 27, while other healthcare employees must get their first dose by Oct. 7.

There is no testing alternative to the policy, and no option for a religious exemption. The exclusion of a religious exemption was temporarily halted by federal court in a lawsuit file by a group of healthcare workers. However, the state believes the argument they will make in federal court on Sept. 28 will reverse the decision. The Department of Health said in an email a religious exemption is not constitutionally required.

The coronavirus vaccines available are free, and effective at preventing virus infection and preventing severe disease. Latest CDC data shows that people who were not fully vaccinated were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die, from COVID-19.

The mandates have met resistance. Protests against the mandates, mainly from politically conservative groups like the Long Island Loud Majority Facebook page, have popped up at hospitals around New York, including Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. Some hospitals have already seen the impact of resignation because of the mandate, including Lewis County General Hospital upstate, which has stopped delivering babies after 30 employees quit. 

Doctors and nurses are the two healthcare occupations with the highest vaccination rates, according to surveys conducted by the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association. The vaccination rates for other healthcare workers are lower, including those in nursing homes who serve the population most vulnerable to the virus, are at 63.7%, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The New York State Health Facilities Association, a trade association representing nursing and assisted living facilities, is asking the state to amend the vaccine policy to allow for a vaccine exemption if testing and proper personal protective equipment is used. In a letter to state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker last Monday, the organization said the amendment is needed to ensure long-term care facilities will be able to retain staffing in the midst of an existing workforce shortage currently affecting 94% of skilling nursing providers.

Acadia Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation administrator Mary Ann Mangels said the Riverhead nursing home, which has 181 certified beds, has fewer than 10 staff members leaving because of the mandate.

“It will have a temporary impact on facilities, depending on the employees that are leaving,” Mangels said. “But I think, personally, the benefit of it outweighs this, period. The fact that we will have a lot more people vaccinated, I think, is a good thing.”

Mangels said that because the vaccine for healthcare workers was also mandated on a federal level, refusing the vaccine would mean the employee would have to leave healthcare. “And I don’t think that’s what people want to do,” she said.

Amy Loeb, executive director at Peconic Bay Medical Center-Northwell Health, said a few individuals have resigned because of the mandate, but the hospital has plans in place to make sure it doesn’t affect their service to the area. The Northwell Health system in early August mandated vaccination or weekly testing for its more than 76,000 employees as of Aug. 16.

“There are system-wide workforce planning and task forces working on contingency plans to make sure that we’re meeting the needs,” Loeb said. “But the bottom line is, as healthcare professionals, it’s our unique responsibility to protect the health of our patients each other [and] our community.”

Loeb continues to encourage everybody to get vaccinated. “While we’ve been stable in terms of numbers in the hospital, we are seeing people critically ill, unvaccinated, in the hospital and it’s very unfortunate every single time we see it,” she said.

Stony Brook Medicine officials said in an email that as of Sept. 14, “Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital have seen no significant impact to staffing levels” due to the mandate. “We are continually monitoring the situation to optimize preparedness and make adjustments as necessary,” the email said.  

It’s up to individual entities covered by the mandate to develop a plan for implementation and what happens if employees do not comply, which could include termination, the State Department of Health said in an email.

“Options to address noncompliance by covered entities include citations and a statement of deficiencies, as well as a referral for enforcement which could result in civil penalties,” DOH spokesperson Erin Silk wrote in an email. “The Department could also order the facility to comply with the mandate under Section 16 of the Public Health Law.“

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.