Hospitals curtail services as vaccination mandate takes effect – Times Union

Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will pull health care workers from the National Guard and other states, if necessary, as thousands of hospital workers face suspension and firing beginning Monday for not being vaccinated against coronavirus. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
ALBANY —  Many hospitals across New York initiated plans over the weekend to begin curtailing services as a deadline for health care workers to be vaccinated against coronavirus took effect on Monday, prompting some facilities to reduce their available beds and surgical rooms.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, during a briefing late Monday morning, said she would implement a plan to pull backup medical personnel from the National Guard and from out of state. It’s unclear how the mandate would apply to many of those workers — military units and health care workers in other states also do not have 100 percent vaccination rates. In addition, the competition for out-of-state medical personnel is fierce, as many states are facing staffing shortages.
“We’re going to have to bring in people at all levels. Again, it doesn’t have to be this way,” Hochul said. 
At Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, which is that region’s largest employer and has roughly 450 patient beds, top officials sent an internal memo to staff on Friday warning they would be reducing their capacity sharply, “as we address the most critical staffing crisis in our history, occurring simultaneously with unprecedented demand in patient volumes,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by the Times Union.
In the run-up to the vaccine mandate, which was expected to exacerbate the staffing crisis already unfolding at many hospitals and medical facilities, Upstate Medical had reduced its number of active operating rooms, limited surgical cases to those that are urgent and most-time sensitive, and reduced and consolidated inpatient beds in intensive care, psychiatric and rehabilitation units, among others.
“When possible, we will also transfer patients back to their hospitals of origin when they no longer require services that the referring hospital cannot provide,” the memo states.
Similar staffing crises are unfolding at other private and state-run hospitals, including SUNY Stonybrook on Long Island and SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn. A person briefed on the situation at SUNY said that as of late Monday roughly 2,000 employees at those hospitals are facing termination.
The governor said Monday she would sign an executive order to allow her to call in the National Guard and to allow retired workers with lapsed licenses to come back to work to fill the gap. Hochul also said the state plans to entice out of state workers with supplemental pay as a way to compete with staffing shortages nationwide. 
“We are not relenting,” Hochul said. “We’re not backing off.”
The governor said she is confident the state will prevail in a religious-exemption challenge to the vaccination mandate that’s pending in U.S. District Court in Utica on behalf of multiple health care workers. She cited religious leaders, like Pope Francis, who have encouraged people to get vaccinated.
“There are not legitimate religious exemptions,” she said. “I feel very confident about our chances in court. … We have a right to defend our people against a global pandemic.”
Hochul also asserted the lack of vaccinations for health care workers is more prevalent upstate than in the downstate region.
“We have a different dynamic in some parts of upstate,” she said. “It’s a different philosophy is all I will say.”
Hochul said she was in conversations with downstate hospital leaders, where there is near full compliance with the vaccine mandate, to provide names of workers who would be willing to temporarily relocate to facilities elsewhere, including upstate, that may need assistance. 
“We’re going to have to build a team and be able to respond to areas where they’ve not been so responsive,” Hochul said.
A judge on Friday in Albany postponed the effective date of a vaccination mandate imposed earlier this month by the state Office of Court Administration that was challenged by the Civil Service Employees Association, the state’s largest public workers union.
In the decision issued Friday by state Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba, the state’s Unified Court System was “enjoined and restrained from implementing” the mandate on roughly 5,600 CSEA-represented employees before an Oct. 1 hearing. 
The decision is one of least two temporary restraining orders that Ryba handed down Friday — a second decision, in a case filed by a state assemblyman and five medical professionals in Buffalo, temporarily blocks the state from prohibiting religious exemptions to the mandate. The second case also is set to be argued in court on Oct. 1.
The challenges come as the first phase of a vaccination mandate for many state employees, mostly nurses, physicians and other front-facing medical workers, took effect at 5 p.m. Monday. Although there has been a surge in last-minute vaccinations for many of those employees, Hochul said that she expects many others will leave their jobs — they face immediate suspension for up to two weeks and possible termination after that.
Groups of medical professionals and multiple labor unions have challenged the imposition of the vaccination mandates — through negotiations, filings with the Public Employment Relations Board and court cases that invoke what they allege are violations of the Constitution and labor laws.
The directive was issued in July by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
In the case filed by CSEA on behalf of 5,600 court administration employees, an attorney for the state argued Thursday that the court officials had worked with union leaders to implement the mandate, including arranging for individuals to “timely file requests for medical or religious exemptions to vaccination (that) will be covered by the testing policy while they await a determination on their exemption.”
“The court system’s vaccine mandate serves an objectively demonstrable need in furtherance of its mission which outweighs any impact of same upon its employees and therefore, its actions in unilaterally implementing such a policy is authorized,” Carolyn J. Grimaldi, an attorney for the Office of Court Administration, wrote in a memorandum filed Thursday in state Supreme Court.
The health department’s mandate affects both public and private health care facilities. Thousands of nurses and other medical professionals had declined to be vaccinated as of late last week; Hochul over the weekend said that nearly 15 percent of the state’s health care workers were not vaccinated.
Officials with hospitals and group homes that care for the disabled said a staffing crisis that existed before the coronavirus pandemic will be exacerbated if many of those workers are out of work.
Many hospitals were already reducing or eliminating elective surgeries, and some are diverting patients to other hospitals to deal with the staffing issues.
In the case filed on behalf of the Buffalo-area medical professionals, they asserted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this month reported a “1,000 percent increase” in adverse reactions to coronavirus vaccines at a meeting where it recommended against requiring booster shots for people younger than 65.
That petition also states the mandate does not provide exemptions for religious beliefs or for those “that were previously infected with COVID-19 and who have natural immunity.”
Natural immunity “is at least as effective as vaccination at preventing future COVID-19 infections,” the petition states, adding that a person who gets vaccinated to keep their job but suffers an adverse reaction “will be without any legal recourse for any such injuries or damages they suffer as a result of vaccination.”
New York GOP Chair Nick Langworthy, who said he supports vaccinations, called the mandate “unconstitutional” during a news conference Monday in Manhattan. He put the mandate in the context of a “demand for power” and said nurses are “being abused by the government that supposedly cherished them so much.”
Hochul on Monday said hospitals had been planning for the staffing shortages and that, in at least one major facility that she did not identify, it affect a few hundred employees out of roughly 48,000.
“What’s going to happen tomorrow is these hospitals and nursing homes who had (a) warning this was going to happen will be working with us … to figure out where people are needed,” she said. 
Brendan J. Lyons is a managing editor for the Times Union overseeing the Capitol Bureau and investigations. Lyons joined the Times Union in 1998 as a crime reporter before being assigned to the investigations team. He became editor of the investigations team in 2013 and began overseeing the Capitol Bureau in 2017. You can reach him at [email protected] or 518-454-5547.
Joshua Solomon is a member of the Capitol Bureau team for the Times Union. He is from Queens, has spent time reporting in western Massachusetts, suburban Florida and now is back in New York. Solomon can be reached at [email protected] or 518-454-5353