New York State’s vaccination requirement for health care workers is among the largest mandates of its kind that is set to take effect in the United States, with weekly virus testing not permitted as a substitute measure. How it goes — and whether it leaves hospitals understaffed — will be closely watched. California is requiring health care workers there to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30, and a similar mandate in Maine will not be enforced until Oct. 29. New York’s willingness to risk large-scale layoffs of health care workers comes amid a national nursing shortage, and the requirement is facing numerous legal challenges.
“We give patients a Bill of Rights, and they are able to choose what procedures or tests or medications they want to put in their system,” said Gregory Serafin, a registered nurse at the Erie County Medical Center, and the lead plaintiff in a New York lawsuit that seeks to stop the mandate. “Health care workers deserve the same medical autonomy to make those decisions.”
Depending on how many health care workers are fired, the policy could also test the resiliency of New York’s health care system. Hospitals across the state are activating emergency staffing plans that they typically reserve for natural disasters or, more recently, surges in Covid-19 cases. Volunteers, students and retirees will fill vacancies, along with traveling nurses.
Northwell, which has 77,000 employees, believes it can weather any loss of employees without the care of patients being affected. The Erie County Medical Center is not as sure.
On Monday, the hospital had 553 inpatients, its busiest day on record. A big reason the hospital is so crowded is that it cannot discharge as many patients as usual to nursing or group homes, because they are also limiting admissions in anticipation of their own staff shortages because of the vaccine mandate.
“This is creating an unprecedented crisis for us,” said Tom Quatroche, the Erie County Medical Center Corporation’s president. “I think we need more time to comply, and I’ve asked for that. For all the right reasons, the vaccine mandate was put in place. But the reality is it is creating a public health crisis in hospitals, with nobody to care for patients.”
In New York City, more than 5,000 of the 42,000 employees of the public hospital system were unvaccinated as of Friday. They will be barred from hospitals starting Monday and from other care facilities beginning Oct. 7, and they will be placed on unpaid leave.