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Vaccine mandate poses Hochul's 1st big political test, experts say

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul, on the job for five weeks, is facing her first big political test by enforcing a vaccine mandate for health care workers, experts say.

"She’s been on a listening tour. She’s been peripatetic. But she hasn’t made any substantial political decisions — and this is a major one," said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political scientist.

Hochul, a Buffalo Democrat, inherited the mandate from her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who ordered health care workers to become vaccinated for COVID-19 by this week or face termination. The goal is to reduce the spread of the virus and reduce the chances that vulnerable patients in hospitals and nursing homes could become infected by staff members.

Hochul could have ditched the mandate after taking office Aug. 24 when Cuomo resigned. She’s not only stuck with it, but also is bearing down on it. "She now owns it," Muzzio said about the political responsibility.

Hochul said she’s prepared to bring in medically trained National Guard members, retired health care workers and workers from out-of-state to address any staffing shortages that might occur.

Meanwhile, she’s continued to press current workers to get vaccinated — with the number growing to 92% of hospital and 92% of nursing home employees now having received at least one vaccine dose, according to the governor’s office.

In one dramatic example, Eastern Niagara Hospital has reached a 97% vaccination rate, the Buffalo News reported. When the mandate was announced, 75% of the hospital’s staff had received a shot.

Yet hospitals also have said they have begun putting unvaccinated staff on unpaid leave, risking potential worker shortages.

On Long Island, for example, at least 93% of staff at Stony Brook University Hospital have been vaccinated. But the hospital also placed fewer than 200 unvaccinated employees on suspension.

"Everything she’s done so far has been pretty uncontroversial, even the replacements she’s made in the executive branch," Syracuse University political scientist Grant Reeher said of Hochul. "This is a big change."

Noting several lawsuits challenging the mandate and criticism from some Republicans, Reeher said: "There’s a real pushback on this. But she’s shown she’s got a lot of resolve. She’s demonstrated she has the strength of her convictions. She’s saying this is going to get a lot more people vaccinated, whether they like it or not."

What makes the politics particularly challenging is some of the pushback is from members of organized labor — a traditional ally of Democrats and a likely big player in what might be a crowded gubernatorial primary field in 2022.

Many labor leaders are on board with vaccinations and the mandate, but they have some members who are opposed. In a related dispute, the union representing court system employees is challenging a similar mandate, although it was ordered by Lawrence Marks, New York’s chief administrative judge, and not Hochul.

"This pits her against members of organized labor and she’s going to need those folks next year," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant. "It’s a brave step, knowing that."

"If she resolves this conflict, it’s a win," Sheinkopf added. "If she’s seen as running roughshod over labor, she will have a problem later."

Republicans in the State Legislature are trying to persuade Hochul to push back the vaccine deadline.

"Today’s immediate problems will likely be tomorrow’s permanent consequences, brought on by the all-or-nothing mandate" aid Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) in a statement. "Increasing vaccination rates is a critical component of the COVID fight, but we’re punishing the individuals who have been getting us through the pandemic and those in desperate need of their care."

Hochul countered that "hospitals have thanked me for being firm."

"It’s not a role I relish," the governor said about enforcing a mandate. She said her usual position "is to say ‘Please, do this,’" but she was prepared to act in the face of opposition.

Hochul has expressed confidence in defeating the lawsuits, indirectly referencing a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case upholding government’s power to mandate vaccines to protect public health. Other decisions similarly have held compulsory vaccines don’t violate constitutional rights to religious freedom.

"We’re going to win that in court in a number of days," Hochul said, referring to an upstate lawsuit filed by 17 nurses claiming the mandate is unconstitutional. She said she this was all about the best public health decision for New Yorkers.

"You need to be sure the person taking care of you will not be giving you COVID," the governor said. "We’re talking about common sense here, folks."

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