Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday said there had been a 3% workforce reduction in health care staff because of the state's COVID-19 vaccination mandates. Credit: NY Govenor's Office

Gov. Kathy Hochul reaffirmed her COVID-19 vaccine mandate strategy Wednesday as she revealed that 3% of workers — almost 34,000 statewide — at hospitals, nursing homes, home health care agencies and adult care facilities were forced from their jobs after declining to get inoculated against the virus.

During a wide-ranging news conference in Manhattan, Hochul announced that her administration was filing an appeal to the Second Circuit following a "disappointing" ruling Tuesday that indefinitely extended a preliminary injunction preventing the state from enforcing its vaccine mandate on health care staff who cite religious exceptions.

The ruling, by Judge David Hurd of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in Utica, means the state is barred from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions. His ruling does not suspend the mandate for other workers, and doesn't require that an application for a religious exception necessarily be granted.

Despite the ruling, Hochul said she continued to stand behind the mandate.

"We believe it works. It has had a dramatic effect on our ability to protect people, particularly health care workers," Hochul said. "When someone is sick and they go into an urgent care center or go into a hospital, they are in need of help because they are in a vulnerable, physical state. They need to know that the person taking care of them will not pass on this deadly virus to them or their family members."

Nearly 34,000 staffers lost

State Health Department figures show that 33,982 combined employees at nursing homes, adult care facilities, hospitals and those providing home health care were terminated, resigned, retired or furloughed after refusing to get vaccinated.

They include 20,512 employees of home health care agencies; 8,612 hospital workers; 4,081 nursing home staffers, and 777 who work for adult care facilities, according to the data.

Roughly half of 1% percent of employees in those fields are still waiting to get vaccinated, while other unvaccinated individuals are still employed because they cited religious exemptions.

The data shows that 92% of nursing home staff have received at least one shot, along with 96% of hospital employees, 95% of adult care facility staff and 94% of those working in home health care. The figures are up considerably in each category since Hochul took office in late August, she said.

"I think that the mandates have brought people to the right decision and you can see that bearing out in what we have right here," Hochul said, only moments before she received her annual flu shot.

It remains unclear how many workers in each of the four fields have left their jobs on Long Island.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the state had 1.25 million health care workers in May 2020.

Northwell Health, the state's largest health care system, said this month that it had fired 1,400 employees for refusing to comply with the mandate. Other health care systems in the region have reported firings or suspensions in the dozens or low hundreds.

Al Cardillo, president and chief executive of the Albany-based Home Care Association of New York State, said a final survey of his agencies should be complete by Thursday. But, he said, preliminary figures could translate to as many as 170,000 patients who are "unable to be served by these aides under the state’s mandate, plus nurses and others who did not vax. These numbers are fluid, however, as we continue to urge and support provider efforts to promote staff vaccination."

'Not spiking the football'

Just over 85% of all adults in the state have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state figures. Hochul said while infection rates continued to decline in most regions, she was "not spiking the football any time soon," in part because the colder weather will begin forcing more activities inside.

The number of breakthrough infections of fully vaccinated New Yorkers crept up slightly from 0.8% to 0.9%, Hochul said, but nearly 450,000 residents across the state have received booster shots to amplify their immunity to the virus, including nearly 81,000 on Long Island.

But the vaccination rate drops considerably among New Yorkers ages 12-17, data shows. On Wednesday, Hochul announced 21 new pop-up sites intended to vaccinate youths statewide, including one Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. at Kennedy Memorial Park in Hempstead.

During a Newsday Live panel on Wednesday, Nassau and Suffolk's health commissioners noted that a slightly higher percentage of COVID-19 cases were being transmitted inside schools this year compared to last when the majority of students testing positive contracted the virus outside schools.

"This year we are seeing a few more cases … where the only possible explanation was inside a classroom," said Suffolk Health Commissioner Gregson Pigott, who attributed the change to the highly contagious delta variant. There were "a couple of kindergarten classes like that where the kids don't spend any time together outside of school, but yet there were a few cases in common."

Nassau Health Commissioner Lawrence Eisenstein said children under 18 now make up about 30% of the county's daily cases.

"There are kids coming down with COVID, but we're finding the numbers are going down," Eisenstein said. "The schools have been a great partner in doing disease control. Quarantine when necessary, but we are doing it in a common-sense manner."

The statewide infection rate Tuesday was just over 3% but 2.53% on a 7-day average, according to state data. Long Island's infection rate remained at 2.77% for the second consecutive day, with 264 Nassau residents and 382 Suffolk residents testing positive for COVID-19.

There were 32 deaths statewide from COVID-19 on Tuesday, including two in Suffolk, data shows.

Meanwhile, in the month since New York City’s vaccine mandate to patronize eateries, bars and entertainment venues began being enforced, more than 6,000 businesses have been warned for violating the rules, and 15 fines were issued, out of 31,000 inspections, according to Jonnel Doris, commissioner of the city’s small business services agency, at the mayor’s daily news conference on Wednesday.

Violations can include failing to enforce the mandate, along with inadequate signage and improper check-in procedures, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

With Matthew Chayes

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