Governor defends vaccine mandate; local hospitals report high compliance rates

As the state mandated deadline passed last week requiring all health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Kathy Hochul defended the decision as “the right thing to do.”

“I will stand with that,” she said during a media briefing last Thursday, three days after the deadline went into effect at the end of the day Sept. 27. “It was hard to do though. It’s hard to force people to do something that you truly wish they would do voluntarily.”

Overall vaccination rates among hospital staff climbed by 15% from Aug. 24 to Sept. 28, at which point about 92% of statewide hospital staff met the deadline with at least one shot.

“You will see that number go higher quickly,” the governor said.

Ms. Hochul thanked the health care workers who decided to get the shot, particularly those who were nervous and anxious and just recently got it.

“I thank you for doing what is right,” she said. “I thank you for caring about the people that look to you for their health care, their lives, the attention you give them. This is truly a profession that I have such respect for, particularly after seeing what they did last year starting in March 2020.”

Prior to the deadline, the governor outlined plans to address potential shortfalls in staff, such as deploying the National Guard, which she said was not necessary. The plans also included bringing in student nurses and recent retirees whose licenses have since lapsed.

The state also launched a 24/7 operation center to monitor and troubleshoot staffing shortages.

“We found that not a single health care facility reported being closed since the mandate went into effect,” Ms. Hochul said.

The governor said the operation center will remain running as the state awaits a court decision on religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate. She said she “feels very confident” that state will win in court.

Northwell Health, the largest health care provider in New York, terminated “a few hundred employees,” according to a statement last Thursday. A spokesperson said they have not provided site-specific numbers, such as for Riverhead’s Peconic Bay Medical Center.

Northwell is now “near 100 percent vaccinated” and reported that “most team members are opting to be vaccinated so as to avoid being terminated.”

The process had no impact on quality of care, Northwell’s statement said.

“Northwell believes that having a fully vaccinated workforce is an important measure in our duty to protect the health and safety of our staff, our patients and the communities we serve,” the statement said.

Stony Brook Medicine allowed employees who were not vaccinated by the deadline to face suspension first rather than immediate termination. At Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, 14 full-time employees were suspended without pay for non-compliance with the state guidelines as of last Thursday, according hospital officials. Those employees may return to full-time work with proof of vaccination within 30 days of face termination with cause, the officials said.

“Currently, three of our outpatient sites have temporarily reduced some hours and all will resume a full schedule very shortly,” the officials said.

More than 98% of the hospital’s full-time workforce has met the deadline and 100% of the hospital’s physicians have met the deadline.

“Our staff is committed to the safety and well-being of our patients and community as we continue to provide the highest level of medical care and offer all hospital services and programs,” the officials said.

Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport reported similar vaccination rates with 98% of staff vaccinated and 100% of medical staff vaccinated.

“Our leadership is actively working with staff on our contingency plans to continue to provide a safe environment,” a statement from Stony Brook ELIH officials said. “We are optimizing preparedness and will make staffing adjustments as necessary.”

Officials said the hospital has worked hard over the past weeks and months “to educate and encourage every member of our Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital family to get vaccinated against COVID-19, to protect our patients, employees and community. Our employee health department was readily available for anyone who wanted to get vaccinated along with multiple on-site vaccine PODS.”

The vaccine mandate has faced criticism, including from Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is running for governor in 2022. The congressman hosted a press conference last Monday in Hauppauge on the day of the deadline to oppose the mandate.

Mr. Zeldin, who is vaccinated, has been outspoken against any COVID-19 vaccine mandates. He said employees who did not wish to be vaccinated could instead by subject to enhanced personal protective equipment and testing requirements.

“Our health care workers were nothing short of heroic the past 18 months,” he said. “Regardless of the uncertainty, lack of PPE and other essential resources at times, gruelingly long hours and pain, suffering, and death around them, they rose to the challenge over and over again. They helped us navigate some of the pandemic’s darkest days and saved lives. We shouldn’t be firing these essential workers. We should be thanking them for all they’ve done for our communities.”