NEW YORK (WABC) -- New York state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers took effect Monday, leaving hospitals and nursing homes across New York braced for the prospect of severe staff shortages fueled by workers getting suspended or fired for refusing to be inoculated.
Officials say 84% of state workers are fully vaccinated, but with thousands still thought to be holding out, administrators prepared contingency plans that included cutting back on noncritical services and limiting admissions at nursing homes.
As the deadline closed in, Gov. Kathy Hochul made an 11th-hour plea to holdout health care workers to get inoculated.
"To those who have not yet made that decision, please do the right thing," Hochul said at a press briefing. "A lot of your employers are anxious to just give you the jab in the arm and say you're part of the family, we need your help to continue on."
Eyewitness News spoke with a woman who has been a nurse for more than 20 years who says she was terminated from her job at Mather Hospital, and her last day at South Shore Surgery Center is Monday.
"For us, it's not just about vaccines, it's about human rights as well, for the people that wanted to take the vaccine and these people I think should have taken the vaccine," she said. "I'm not against the vaccine. I'm also against human rights (violations), and you have the right to choose to take it, and I should have the right to choose not to if I feel like it's not good for me."
Hochul says she's prepared for a worker shortage, with plans to call in medically trained National Guard members and healthcare workers from other states.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the county is prepared.
"I have been in contact with our hospital systems, and I am confident that they are prepared to keep delivering quality care with this vaccine mandate in place," she said. "Most of Nassau's hospitals have 80%-90% of their staff vaccinated. As an extra precaution, I have activated Nassau's Office of Emergency Management to stay in constant contact with our hospitals and to assist as necessary with any staffing shortages."
The rules apply not just to people like doctors and nurses, but also to others who work in health care institutions, like food service workers, administrators and cleaners.
Health care workers in Suffolk County held a rally Monday to protest the state's vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.
"I'm going to stand my ground," said health care worker Stephanie Touchet.
Touchet said she plans to report to work every day at orthopedic practice Orlin & Cohen in Port Jefferson until they force her to leave.
Touchet said she requested a religious exemption, which was denied.
Christine Manello, a registered nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital, said her religious exemption was also denied.
"I want to work," she said. "I love my patients. I love my job. I'm being put in a position that is completely unconstitutional and unfair."
Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Patchogue), who is running for New York Governor, organized the rally.
He said Governor Hochul should "put aside this partisan agenda" and come up with a policy that better supports health care workers who sacrificed so much during the pandemic.
"We shouldn't be firing these essential workers. We should be thanking them for all they've done for our communities," he said.
"When we were there, nobody else was there," said health care worker Marilyn Welch. "And now, this is what they're going to do to us?"
Kevin Surdi, a vaccinated emergency room nurse, said he attended the rally to support his colleagues.
"I am pro-vaccine," he said. "I'm very anti-mandate
Surdi said he often receives text messages from emergency rooms across Long Island begging him to come into work because they're already short staffed.
"You can't fire nurses," he said. "I'd much rather get treated by an unvaccinated nurse than nobody at all."
The state's largest health care provider, Northwell Health said nearly 100% of its workforce was vaccinated and they have begun removing unvaccinated workers from their system. Northwell officials issued the following statement:
Northwell has spent several weeks preparing for New York State's mandate that all health care workers get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27. But we are taking even stronger measures to ensure the safety of our staff and, more importantly, the well-being of our patients and the communities we serve. As a health system we are committed to vaccinating our entire workforce beyond the scope of the state's mandate to include both our clinical and non-clinical staff. A few hundred unvaccinated leaders were contacted last week to take urgent action in regards to getting the shot. About two dozen of them who were still not vaccinated were exited from the system. We are now beginning the process to exit the rest of our unvaccinated staff. Northwell wants to reassure the public that during this time there will be no impact to the quality of patient care at any of our facilities. We are proud that our workforce is already nearly 100 percent vaccinated. As health care professionals and members of the largest health care provider in New York State, we have a unique responsibility to protect the health of our patients and each other. We care for sick people - some critically ill - every day, and we are responsible for their safety while in our care.
They defined "leader" as anyone who is a manager or above.
Stony Brook University officials also released a statement:
Stony Brook University follows New York State and NYS Department of Health regulations and guidelines regarding immunization against SARS-CoV-2. This includes the New York State Department of Health issued order that all hospitals and nursing homes "continuously require all personnel to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with the first dose for current personnel received by September 27, 2021." We have continually communicated to our staff who qualify under this mandate, to encourage them to get the vaccine, and to make them aware of opportunities to become vaccinated. As of September 27 in the afternoon, in response to the state mandate, 90.3% of Stony Brook University Hospital employees have been vaccinated and this number continues to grow daily. We are monitoring the situation to optimize preparedness and make staffing adjustments as necessary. These staffing contingency plans will allow us to continue to provide safe staffing and the best possible care to our patients. Throughout this unprecedented health crisis, Stony Brook University Hospital has upheld its standard of safety and quality of care for our patients and this remains our highest priority. Should we see attrition due to employee decisions not to become vaccinated, an upcoming Job Fair hosted on site will help supplement staffing needs for various positions. We have continually communicated to our staff who qualify under this mandate, to encourage them to get the vaccine, and to make them aware of opportunities to become vaccinated. We are following the current guidelines and will set up meetings with our employees who make the decision not to get the vaccine to begin on September 28.
The New York City's hospital system reported a 95% rate for nurses and a higher rate for doctors.
"I feel good, very good about our ability to have the staffing we need in the public hospitals," said Mitchell Katz, head of the city's public hospital system.
The mandate comes as hospitals are already reeling from staff shortages fueled in part by workers retiring and employees seeking other jobs after 18 months of the pandemic.
Health care workers can apply for a religious exemption, at least for now.
A federal judge on Oct. 12 will consider a legal challenge arguing that such exemptions are constitutionally required.
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