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Deadline Thursday for home health care workers to get COVID-19 vaccination

The state vaccine mandate has many Long Island

The state vaccine mandate has many Long Island health care workers thinking about keeping or losing their jobs. Newsday's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

A state mandate for home health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be fired hits a deadline on Thursday, and some agencies are predicting large shortages of workers while others say they support the measure as a way to keep both employees and patients safe.

At the same time, the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 on Long Island jumped to 850 — from 562 the previous day — in test results from Tuesday.

The vaccine mandate covers adult care facilities, home health agencies, long-term home health care programs, AIDS home care programs, hospice care, and diagnostic and treatment centers.

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the mandate in August, and Gov. Kathy Hochul is implementing it. Despite industry pleas this week to extend the deadline, she has shown no sign she will.

At least one home health care agency on Long Island said it supports the move, and ordered its own vaccination requirement for workers even earlier — in July.

"Patients don’t want us to come if we’re not vaccinated," Linda Taylor, CEO of Visiting Nurse Service & Hospice of Suffolk, said Wednesday. "While we don’t want to lose a single worker, we believe in this mandate and the importance of getting vaccinated."

Of the Northport-based agency’s 200 employees, she said, six are refusing to get vaccinated and will be terminated on Friday.

Asked if the state should delay the deadline as some groups are asking, she said no.

"The more we delay, the more we are at risk. It’s just kicking the can down the road," Taylor said. "I don’t see any point in delaying it. If anything, it’s going to make it worse."

Staff at federally qualified health centers, community-based providers that focus services for medically underserved communities, are also covered by the Thursday mandate.

David Nemiroff, president and CEO of Long Island FQHC, which has seven facilities in Nassau County as well as three school-based centers, said most of their 360 employees had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

About nine people had not been vaccinated as of Wednesday afternoon, Nemiroff said, but he expects they will get their shots at the last minute. All of the clinicians in the centers have been vaccinated.

"These are people who work in our health centers — medical assistants, clerks, I don’t know all the titles yet," he said. "Hopefully this won’t impact operations, but we will have to see. I think because it’s a low number, we will be OK."

In addition, seven people have applied for religious exemptions.

"We will see what plays out with the courts," he said.

Some groups that represent home health agencies, however, are still asking for a delay, though that appeared unlikely Wednesday as the deadline loomed.

"People are trying everything they can to be compliant, but we’re still seeing a risk of a very significant gap" in workers, said Al Cardillo, president and CEO of the Albany-based Home Care Association of New York State.

He is asking Hochul to permit a "phased-in" approach to the mandate instead of a hard Thursday deadline.

State officials said Wednesday there were no plans to extend the deadline.

"It is critical for health care workers to get vaccinated to protect themselves and the vulnerable populations they care for, and we will continue to work with providers and stakeholders to protect quality patient care," the state Department of Health said in a statement.

The department said it expects more home health care workers to get vaccinated as the deadline hits just as last week's mandate for hospital and nursing home workers caused a spike in inoculations.

Taylor said her agency saw an increase in employees getting vaccinated as the deadline neared. She said staffing was always a fluid situation at home health care agencies, but she did not expect a major disruption due to the mandate.

One Visiting Nurse employee explained why she got the shot: "All of my colleagues are vaccinated and my patients are vaccinated," said Heather Matias, a home health aide. "I knew I was working with mostly elderly patients, and I would not be able to live with myself if I got them sick. I also wanted to protect my family."

The employees who declined to get vaccinated included two nurses, two home health aides, one physical therapist and one social worker, Taylor said.

In test results from Tuesday, Nassau registered 336 new cases of COVID-19 and Suffolk had 514. New York City logged 1,401 new cases.

The seven-day average for positivity in testing for the virus continued to drop on Long Island, hitting 2.74% Tuesday, compared to 2.82% the previous day.

Across the state, 32 people died on Tuesday of causes linked to the virus, including four in Suffolk and one in Nassau.

"My number one priority is getting everyone vaccinated, especially those in health care settings," Hochul said in a statement. "If we can get shots to everyone who needs them, we can keep our businesses open and safe."

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