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NY moves forward with health care worker vaccine mandate

Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 9:26 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 30, 2021 at 3:35 PM EDT
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PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (WCAX) -- New York’s statewide vaccine mandate for hospital and nursing home employees went into effect at midnight on Tuesday, leaving an estimated eight percent of those workers who refused a shot without a job. But hundreds of others are making use of the state’s allowance for religious or medical exemptions.

“It was the right thing to do, I will stand by that,” said New York Governor Kathy Hochul Thursday. She says the strictly enforced mandate for vaccinations is to protect vulnerable people. “It’s hard to force people to do something that you truly wish they would do voluntarily. But I kept focusing on the people who when they get sick... They need to know that that person is vaccinated as well.”

The mandate resulted in an estimated 40 staff at four North Country area hospitals getting cut. But 105 employees were able to stay in their positions, citing religious or medical exemptions, which are allowed by the New York State Department of Health. Those regulations say an employee is exempt from the vaccine if it is detrimental to their health based upon a pre-existing health condition.

It’s still unclear what qualifies as a religious exemption and that is currently being challenged in court. Seventeen medical professionals filed a lawsuit against the state calling the entire mandate “unconstitutional, unlawful and unenforceable.”

All staff with a religious exemption in the region will continue to work while the case makes its way through the courts but the governor says the outcome of the case could create an even greater staffing shortage. “We are hitting every possible way we can to make sure that we are not short-staffed,” she said.

There are protocols for all the staff that are exempt, including weekly testing and daily screening.

“If we get a positive test, they get quarantined immediately and we do contract tracing -- as if it was the county health department -- with anyone they have been on contact with in the building, employees, or patients,” said Tammy Reynolds with Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone.

“They wouldn’t be able to return to work until they are cleared by occupational health and wellness,” said Carrie Howard-Canning with Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh.

Area hospitals say they have moved staff around so no services have been shut down. One exception is Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville, which temporarily closed its maternity wing after a majority of nurses resigned over the mandate.

Gov. Hochul said 92% of New York health care workers have met the state’s new vaccine mandate by getting the first dose of vaccine.

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