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Gov. Kathy Hochul preparing for possible staff shortages at NY hospitals, nursing homes

Health care workers protest a COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Health care workers protest a COVID-19 vaccine mandate outside the New York State Office Building in Hauppauge last month. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Saturday said she was preparing to issue a state of emergency if severe staff shortages occur in hospitals and nursing homes after a COVID-19 vaccine mandate goes into effect in New York on Monday.

Deploying medically trained National Guard troops, bringing medical professionals out of retirement and allowing people with medical licenses from other states and countries to practice in New York are among the options she is considering, the governor’s office said in a news release Saturday.

"The governor’s announcement is very welcome news," said Wendy Darwell, president and CEO of the Hauppauge-based Suburban Hospital Alliance of New York State, which represents hospitals on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, and which supports the mandate. "We have a very tight workforce and so does the entire country. We really need to have every possible tool at our disposal once we know once and for all what staff are available on Monday or Tuesday morning."

What to know

  • Gov. Kathy Hochul is prepared to issue a state of emergency if severe staff shortages arise at hospitals and nursing homes after a COVID-19 vaccination mandate goes into effect Monday.
  • If needed, Hochul could deploy medically trained National Guard troops, bring medical professionals out of retirement and allow people with medical licenses from other states and countries to practice in New York.
  • The large majority of hospital and nursing home employees are vaccinated, state data shows. A group representing Long Island hospitals says no area hospitals plan patient-care cutbacks because of any staff shortage — and if necessary the cuts would focus on elective procedures.

Hospital and nursing home officials have been warning that the mandate, which requires that all employees receive at least the first dose of a vaccine by midnight Monday, could exacerbate existing shortages of nurses and other employees. The Healthcare Association of New York State, which represents hospitals, nursing homes and other health care organizations statewide, said in a Sept. 12 report that the shortage "could negatively impact the ability of some systems to provide care for their communities," especially upstate. The association supports the mandate.

Darwell said no Long Island hospital had told her that it expected the mandate to lead to cutbacks in services, but "we won’t really know until Monday or Tuesday morning what the extent of any workforce shortages is going to be."

She said hospitals were performing vaccinations over the weekend and "working hard to get every last willing worker to get vaccinated.

LI hospitals ready for any shortages

All of the region’s hospitals have been planning for potential mandate-related shortages, and every hospital has been required for years to have an annual emergency preparedness plan in the event of staffing or other crises, she said.

"When there’s a crisis anticipated you always prioritize emergent or urgent care," and if there’s a need for cutbacks, it would be in elective procedures, meaning that patient care would not be affected, she said.

Hochul said in a statement that she was "monitoring the staffing situation closely."

Supporters of the mandate say it is needed to decrease the risk a health care provider would infect a patient or nursing home resident, many of whom are especially vulnerable to severe COVID-19 or death.

Newly released state health department data indicates a rush by some health care workers to get vaccinated as the deadline draws near. As of Saturday, 87% of nursing home employees on Long Island had received at least one vaccine dose, up from 84% on Friday. As of Wednesday, 82% of hospital employees on Long Island were fully vaccinated. The state did not provide data on what percentage of hospital employees had gotten their first shot, which is all that is required by Monday.

Eighty-three percent of adult-care facility employees on Long Island had been at least partially vaccinated by Friday. The deadline for adult-care, home health care and hospice employees to get vaccinated is Oct. 7.

The mandate includes a medical exemption but not an exemption for religious reasons. A federal judge in Utica has barred the state from enforcing the mandate for employees who are seeking religious exemptions until Oct. 12.

Hochul said she had a comprehensive plan to handle shortages that includes preparing an executive order to, if necessary, allow retired medical professionals and "qualified health care professionals" with out-of-state and foreign medical licenses to practice, as well as allowing recent graduates to practice.

The governor’s office said Hochul would work with the federal government to expedite visa requests for medical professionals, and to deploy disaster medical assistance teams that a federal website says include doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and EMTs.

Darwell said the initiatives Hochul was prepared to deploy were "the flexibilities that would have the most impact in the shortest period of time."

Hospitals already are familiar with them because former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered similar measures in the spring of 2020, as hospitals faced a huge influx of COVID-19 patients, Darwell said.

"If we need to rely on them again, we already have the experience to know that they’re going to be helpful to us, and it will be safe for patients," she said.

Unvaccinated workers face termination

New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, the state's largest health care system, said in a statement Friday that "patient care will not be affected" by the mandate.

"A system-wide workforce planning taskforce is working on contingency plans to ensure that we can meet staffing needs," Northwell said.

Northwell employees had been notified that if they didn’t receive their first dose of the vaccine by Monday, they would "be subject to adverse action, up to and including termination," according to the health care system.

Northwell said nearly 91% of its employees had been vaccinated as of Friday.

Yet some employees of Northwell and other health care systems are adamant they will not get vaccinated.

"I already packed up my locker and do not plan on going back," Huntington Hospital nurse Jillian Kulesh said in a text Saturday. Huntington is a Northwell hospital.

Kulesh said she would not get vaccinated because she was worried about the long-term effects of the vaccine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said negative long-term effects of the vaccine were "extremely unlikely," and experts say there’s a much higher chance that someone would have long-term effects from COVID-19 itself.

Kulesh said a staff shortage could lead to medical errors because of fewer employees, "being rushed" and "lack of experience."

The state Department of Labor announced Saturday that employees of health care facilities, nursing homes and schools who quit or were fired for refusing to obey an employer vaccine mandate would not be eligible for unemployment insurance "absent a valid request for accommodation."

The governor’s office said Saturday the only exemption was for those with "a valid, doctor-approved request for a medical accommodation."

Meanwhile, the state’s COVID-19 numbers continue roughly at a plateau, data released by the state on Saturday shows.

The number of hospitalizations statewide increased slightly on Friday, to 2,345, up nine patients from Thursday.

Long Island’s seven-day positivity rate ticked slightly upward, to 3.49% Friday, up from 3.48% Thursday. In Suffolk County, 567 new positive test results were reported; in Nassau, there were 352.

Two Nassau residents and one Suffolk resident died Friday; 31 people died statewide.

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