New York pleads with unvaccinated health workers as mandate looms

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New York governor Kathy Hochul on Monday pleaded with thousands of unvaccinated healthcare workers to “do the right thing” and receive their Covid-19 jabs as the state braced for labour shortages at hospitals and nursing homes hours before a vaccine mandate was set to take effect.

The mandate, first issued in August, requires all healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing homes to receive at least one dose by 11:59pm on Monday night or be fired and disqualified from unemployment benefits. Some could be placed on unpaid leave.

The edict threatens to put tens of thousands of the state’s hospital and nursing home employees at risk of losing their jobs at a time when the industry is already struggling with pervasive staffing shortages.

In preparation, Hochul was set to sign an executive order on Monday that would give her emergency powers to call up the National Guard, while also recruiting retirees, out-of-state staff and foreign workers to help fill any gaps. 

Though hospitalisations have been falling in New York state since the Delta variant spiked in August, nurses’ unions say the ratio of nurses and doctors to patients was already dangerously out of balance.

The mandate takes effect amid a nationwide debate over the constitutionality and effectiveness of such measures in slowing the spread of Covid-19.

This will provide an early test of whether vaccine requirements being implemented by employers and governments across the US have the intended effect of protecting public health and boosting take-up of the jab, or if they will instead prove a disruption by displacing numerous workers.

New York’s mandate for its healthcare workers is among the strictest in the nation and does not provide an option for unvaccinated workers to submit to regular testing instead of the shot or to seek a religious exemption. 

Plans to enforce a similar mandate for New York City’s 150,000 school employees including teachers were temporarily halted on Friday by a federal judge.

Policymakers say the mandates are crucial to public health, while opponents say vaccine requirements restrict their freedoms. Others say they fear the vaccine’s side effects.

Several unions representing New York’s healthcare workers support the mandate but question how it will affect staffing levels.

State data showed that 84 per cent of the 450,000 hospital employees in the state had been fully vaccinated as of last week, leaving tens of thousands of workers at risk of missing the Monday deadline.

For Hochul, who has only been in office for a month after the resignation of her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, the stand-off over Covid vaccines represents the first major test of her tenure.

On Monday morning, speaking at a vaccination site, she described the mandate as part of her duty to protect New Yorkers, and said it was the right of those who visited the state’s healthcare facilities to have confidence that the people who cared for them would not expose them to the virus.

“We’re talking about just common sense here, my friends,” she said.

Hochul did not say how many healthcare workers she expected to flout the rules, and therefore how many replacements would be needed. She plans to discuss the matter with hospitals this evening to identify shortages and co-ordinate reinforcements, she said.

Northwell Health, the state’s largest healthcare provider, said the mandate will not impact patient care at its 19 hospitals. But the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo said it may be forced to stop accepting new intensive care patients and pause elective procedures, such as hip replacements and cosmetic procedures, if the mandate worsens its staffing crisis. 

New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City said that while the vast majority of workers got vaccinated ahead of its September 22 deadline, fewer than 250 of its employees “chose not to comply” and no longer worked there.

The New York State Health Facilities Association, a trade group that represents more than 200 nursing homes, asked the governor to consider adding a temporary testing option for unvaccinated workers. It said it did not think all nursing home workers would be vaccinated by the Monday deadline.

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