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Vaccine mandate sought for health workers at prisons, mental health facilities, Hochul says

On Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul says she's confident a judge will rule

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday said she's confident a judge will rule in New York's favor on Oct. 12 denying religious exemptions for medical workers who don't want to take the vaccine against COVID-19. Credit: NY Governor's Office

Health care workers in mental health facilities and prisons in New York will be mandated to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday.

They would join the ranks of staffers at hospitals and nursing homes who were required to receive at least one dose of the vaccination by midnight Monday or face losing their jobs under a state mandate. While the majority of hospital and nursing home workers have been vaccinated, hundreds have been fired or furloughed for refusing to get the shot, Hochul said.

"We have been working and continue to be working on regulations that would cover all those services being promulgated from the Office of Mental Health and other facilities," Hochul said at a news conference in Manhattan in response to a question about mandates for health care workers at prisons and mental health facilities. "That is happening, and [we] will probably be ready to announce it very shortly."

Hochul said the current vaccine mandate was issued through the state Department of Health and only covered facilities that agency regulates.

"We will have the legal authority to announce that very shortly," she said. "I didn't have the authority under what we did with the hospitals and nursing homes. Otherwise, I assure you I would have."

Hochul said 87% of hospital staff and 92% of nursing home staff across the state was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state figures from Sept. 28.

The vaccine mandate was first announced by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in August.

Hospital systems on Long Island said they had fired, furloughed or suspended hundreds of employees this week, though the vast majority of workers complied with the order. No health care facilities had to close because they lost too many staff members due to the order, Hochul said.

Northwell Health, the state's largest health care system, said it had to fire "a few hundred employees" but did not provide a specific number. The system, which has more than 77,000 employees, has its own COVID-19 vaccine mandate that is more sweeping than the state's because it includes clinical and nonclinical workers at all its offices and facilities. The current workforce is near 100% vaccinated, officials said.

At Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, the number of employees facing unpaid suspension for refusing to get vaccinated dropped to 36 on Thursday, officials said. The suspended workers at that hospital have until Oct. 4 to receive at least one shot or they will be fired. About 100 employees are seeking medical or religious exemptions.

"We got through a difficult week. It wasn’t easy. I thank people who stepped up and did the right thing," Hochul said.

The governor, who was prepared to use replacement workers from other countries, including the Dominican Republic and the Philippines, said the mandate worked.

"My number one job as governor is to keep the people of this state safe," she said. "That is why we were very firm in adhering to the vaccine mandate."

She noted that she also did not have to call in National Guard medical personnel or student nurses. She indicated that 200 nurses from the Dominican Republic had flown to New York to help, but have returned home because they were not needed.

People opposed to the mandate, including some who filed lawsuits, have argued that the order infringed on their personal freedom or religious beliefs, or they had concerns about the side effects of the shots.

Most medical experts say the shots are safe and are the only way to end the pandemic.

The virus continued to exact a toll on the state — 38 people died on Wednesday of causes linked to COVID-19, Hochul said. The fatalities included two in Nassau County and one in Suffolk County.

"This is still deadly serious," she said.

And for the second day in a row, Long Island surpassed 800 new daily cases of COVID-19 in test results released Thursday.

The number of new cases in test results from Wednesday was 312 in Nassau and 511 in Suffolk, for a total of 823. New York City registered 1,366 new cases.

But the seven-day average for positivity in testing for the virus is slowly dropping after a summertime spike fueled by the delta variant, Hochul said.

The average on Long Island fell Wednesday to 3.18%, from 3.30% the previous day. It was above 4% for much of the summer, but below 1% as recently as June.

The statewide average was 2.58%.

COVID-19 "breakthrough cases" — vaccinated people who get infected with the virus — are rare, she said. In New York State, 0.7% of fully vaccinated people had been infected with COVID-19, according to the latest state data.

And currently 0.05% of fully vaccinated people are hospitalized because of the virus, she said.

Hochul announced 20 new pop-up vaccination sites as part of the #VaxtoSchool program, aimed at boosting inoculation rates of people ages 12 to 17.

The Long Island clinic will operate Friday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Mastic Beach Fire House, 1080 Mastic Rd.

She said 75.3% of New Yorkers over age 18 are fully vaccinated, but only 56.4% of those 12 to 17 years old.

"Still not happy with our young people," she said. Addressing the parents of those still not vaccinated, she said: "What are you waiting for? Your kids need this."

"I really am just beseeching parents to do what's right for their kids and not let them be one of those children who end up in a serious condition in a hospital or even worse yet," she said.

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