Northwell Health chief executive Michael Dowling is accustomed to seeing a few demonstrators outside his hospitals from time to time.
But he wasn’t prepared for the scene that greeted him Sunday, when he attended an event sponsored by the Huntington Hibernians that marked the halfway point to St. Patrick's Day, and celebrated Dowling as the 2022 parade's grand marshal.
Dowling was met with hundreds of protesters, blocking the entrance to the American Legion hall where the event was held, screaming and waving photos of Dowling with horns coming out of his head.
"My body, my choice!" they yelled, objecting to the coming state vaccine mandate for health care workers, which takes effect this week.
After requesting a police presence to help him get home, Dowling discovered protesters there, too.
Now, he has 24/7 security outside his Northport home. And an even larger crowd of demonstrators is expected there this weekend. Anti-vax advocates have gone as far as posting his home address to Facebook in announcing plans for a "freedom protest."
"I've been around a long time and I've seen this before, but not as direct as this," Dowling said, noting that he's never had to have security at his home before, even after nearly two decades as Northwell's CEO.
Dowling said the demonstrators seem to be a mix of those more broadly opposing the vaccine or requirements and those who work for Northwell and don't want to get the shot. He noted that Northwell has rejected every application for a religious exemption it has received. He said hundreds of Northwell employees might lose their jobs for refusing the vaccine.
Other hospital systems and nursing homes across the region are reporting relatively high vaccination rates, but some employees are losing their jobs. Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday issued an executive order to help with potential staffing shortages — for instance, allowing out-of-state licensed staff to work in New York.
Islandwide, 90% of nursing home staff have been vaccinated as of Monday. Hospital data will be updated Wednesday, but as of last week, 82% of the region's hospital workers had been vaccinated. That number is expected to be significantly higher now, as many employees got the shot as the deadline approached.
"People didn't think we were serious or thought that the courts would protect them," Dowling said. "But the mandate works."
Dowling said even the personal nature of the demonstrations doesn't change his support for vaccine mandates.
"People have the right to demonstrate. People have the right to protest," Dowling said. "It doesn't change the policy. If you're going to work at Northwell, you're going to get vaccinated. You have a responsibility to do the right thing, especially as a health care worker."