New York's Covid-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers leads to suspension of hundreds of holdouts

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signs an executive order to address potential health care worker shortages as vaccine mandate begins. Pictured is a vaccine clinic in Los Angeles, on August 23.

By Artemis Moshtaghian, Laura Ly and Eric Levenson, CNN

(CNN) -- Hundreds of unvaccinated health care workers across New York were suspended Tuesday and could soon lose their jobs entirely as the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers went into effect overnight.

As of Monday evening, 92% of hospital staff, 92% of nursing home staff, and 89% of adult care facility staff had at least one vaccine dose, Gov. Kathy Hochul's office said. The vaccination rates increased considerably over the last four weeks as the state crept closer to the vaccine deadline, Hochul said.

"This new information shows that holding firm on the vaccine mandate for health care workers is simply the right thing to do to protect our vulnerable family members and loved ones from COVID-19," she said.

Last month, the New York State Department of Health issued an order that required all health care workers in the state be vaccinated against Covid-19 by September 27.

New York's Covid vaccine mandates represent a preview of what may be ahead for the rest of the country, as President Joe Biden has similarly imposed vaccine or testing requirements on federal workers, large employers and health care staff, which could apply to as many as 100 million Americans.

"We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us," Biden said earlier this month.

States have long required hospital employees to be vaccinated against other diseases to better protect staff and patients from outbreaks.

In New York, the vast majority of health care workers have been vaccinated against Covid-19, but the requirement could still lead to a significant number of workers unable to work -- shortages that could, ironically, lead to worse medical care for patients with the illness. The state is facing similar potential worker shortages because of its vaccine mandates in schools and in courts.

To address these potential shortages, Gov. Hochul signed an executive order Monday night that expands the available health care workforce and allows additional workers to administer Covid-19 testing and vaccinations. In particular, the order allows health care workers from other states and countries to practice in New York and waives the re-registration fees to speed up the process.

"The only way we can move past this pandemic is to ensure that everyone eligible is vaccinated, and that includes those who are taking care of our vulnerable family members and loved ones," Hochul said in a statement.


Where New York's hospitals stand


Any employee of a state-run health care facility who does not receive at least one vaccination dose by the end of the day Monday, barring approved exemptions, "will be immediately suspended," according to the New York State Department of Health.

Across the state, hospital systems moved to suspend or terminate employees who declined to get vaccinated.

Northwell Health, a New York hospital system with over 76,000 employees, said in a statement Tuesday that they have begun a "process to exit all unvaccinated team members."

New York City's public hospital system, Health + Hospitals (H + H), is doing well without any disruptions to care at any of their facilities, CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz said Tuesday. He said the staff has had "tremendous success" with compliance with the vaccine mandate.

The hospital system has had over 91% compliance with the mandate, Stephanie M. Guzmán, deputy press secretary for H + H, told CNN on Tuesday. NYC H+H employees who are not vaccinated will be put on unpaid leave but may return if they get vaccinated, Guzmán said.

Katz also said that he had spoken with hospital leaders from across the city and all have reported that their hospitals are open and operating normally.

"All of the hospitals in New York City are fully-operational and doing well," Katz said.

A day earlier, Katz said that about 98-99% of doctors were vaccinated and over 95% of nurses were as well. He said he was not aware of any staffing shortages from the private hospital system either.

New York City Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said Monday he did not expect a major impact to patient care, though he acknowledged there could be some staffing issues.

"I do expect that some places where more health care workers remain to be vaccinated may have to make some operational adjustments particularly to ensure that staffing is most important, that ICU or operating rooms are adequately staffed," Chokshi said.

The vast majority of employees at Mount Sinai and NewYork-Presbyterian hospitals in New York City have complied with the state's vaccine mandate, according to spokespeople from both health institutions.

Mount Sinai expects less than 1% of its staff to be cut due to failure to fulfill the vaccine mandate, a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, NewYork-Presbyterian set its own vaccination deadline last week, the hospital said in a statement. More than 99% of the hospital's 48,000 staff members are fully vaccinated, said spokesperson Suzanne Halpin, adding that fewer than 250 employees chose not to comply with the mandate.

"We will continue to provide exceptional care at all of our hospitals, without interruption," she said.


Upstate hospitals suspend hundreds of employees


At Erie County Medical Center Corporation (ECMC), about 7% of the workforce was placed on administrative leave due to the vaccine mandate, the health institution said in a press release Monday.

A total of 276 employees across the corporation's health care system have been placed on a 30-day unpaid administrative leave as a result of failing to get the Covid-19 vaccine by the deadline, according to spokesman Peter Cutler. That total includes 176 out of 3,303 employees at ECMC's main hospital and 100 out of 474 employees at Terrace View Long-Term Care.

"Staff are voluntarily working extra shifts," said Cutler. "We are redeploying staff from other areas of our institution as necessary."

ECMC suspended elective inpatient surgeries and will temporarily stop accepting ICU transfers from other health care facilities ahead of Monday's vaccine mandate deadline, the medical center said in a statement. ECMC has also curtailed hours at outpatient clinics as well as reducing units at one of its long-term care facilities.

In addition, Albany Medical Center suspended 204 employees, or 1.7% of its staff, for one week starting Tuesday due to noncompliance with the vaccine mandate. If employees remain unvaccinated after the seven-day suspension, they will be terminated, said spokesperson Susan Ford.

"The number is expected to be fluid, as there are employees who are on vacation, on leave, not scheduled to work, or have not had a chance to submit their vaccine paperwork yet," Ford said.

Ford said the medical center is "taking proactive measures to recruit and retain staff, including referral bonuses and rewards for attendance." She also added that the medical center is working on developing "thoughtful solutions" in continuing patient care without interruption so as to "keep the cancellation or postponement of surgeries to a minimum."

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