State accuses unvaccinated nurses of incompetence, misconduct – Times Union

SUNY has issued incendiary disciplinary letters to nurses and other medical professionals charging them with misconduct, insubordination, dereliction of duties and incompetence after they declined to get vaccinated by the state’s mandatory Sept. 27 deadline. Here, a nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine to another nurse at Albany Medical Center on Dec. 14, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. 
ALBANY — The State University of New York has issued incendiary termination letters to nurses and other medical professionals charging them with misconduct, insubordination, dereliction of duties and incompetence after they declined to get vaccinated by the state’s mandatory Sept. 27 deadline.
The vaccination mandate imposed by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration on health care workers led to thousands of workers, including doctors and nurses, facing termination at a time when hospitals have been cutting services, closing beds and, in some instances, diverting patients to other facilities. 
For nurses and others employed by SUNY hospitals, the stronger wording of the two-page disciplinary letters they received contrasts with similar suspension and termination notices issued to nurses and other medical staff by private hospitals.
At Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital in Binghamton, for instance, nurses and other staff were issued suspension notices last week stating: “(S)ince our records show you are not compliant with New York’s state mandate, you will be placed on suspension,” adding, “continued failure to comply will be deemed voluntary resignation of employment.”
The letters issued by the private Catholic hospital in the state’s Southern Tier, like many other notices from private health care providers, have not charged nurses or other medical professionals with dereliction of duty, misconduct or incompetence.
Labor union leaders for the nurses and other medical professionals employed by SUNY said the wording of the state’s termination notices, as the vaccine mandate is facing multiple court challenges, has raised concerns about whether the nurses’ licenses could be in jeopardy if the charges are sent to the state Department of Education, which licenses nurses and physicians, among other health care professions.
“Regardless of what they’re doing now, these nurses showed up and put their lives at risk and put their family’s lives at risk when there was no vaccine for this virus,” said Wayne Spence, president of the Public Employees Federation. “On a practical side, what happens if they change their mind and get the vaccine; it won’t matter because they won’t have a license. This is short-sighted.”
The vaccination mandate has spurred a series of legal challenges to the state Department of Health’s controversial vaccination mandate that compelled hospitals and other medical facilities — including state-run hospitals and nursing homes — to suspend or terminate health care professionals who refused to be vaccinated.
At least two judges have also issued temporary restraining orders intended to delay the state from imposing the vaccine mandate on workers who invoke a religious exemption, but some of the employers regulated by the health department have apparently ignored those court orders and are not granting religious exemptions. There are other legal challenges focused on whether the mandate violated civil rights or labor laws — because it was not negotiated.
The lawsuits also have challenged the legal authority of the “emergency order” issued by outgoing state health Commissioner Howard Zucker — two months after the state of emergency for the pandemic in New York had ended. It’s also being imposed as the rate of infections, deaths and hospitalizations for COVID-19 are declining.
Hochul has staunchly defended the mandate and two weeks ago asserted that God was responsible for helping scientists and others create the vaccines.
“We are not relenting,” Hochul said. “We’re not backing off. … There are not legitimate religious exemptions. I feel very confident about our chances in court. … We have a right to defend our people against a global pandemic.”
Hochul had also asserted the lack of vaccinations for health care workers was more prevalent upstate than downstate.
“We have a different dynamic in some parts of upstate,” she had said. “It’s a different philosophy is all I will say.”
Pat Kane, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, which does not represent the nurses employed by SUNY, said those government employees have a right to be concerned about the allegations leveled against them in the letters issued by SUNY.
Kane questioned how a nurse could be accused of “incompetence” for a personal decision that is not directly related to their work — because they were suspended when the mandate went into effect — and did not involve direct patient care in the line of duty.
“Incompetence has to refer to someone who’s actually practicing; I think they have a right to be concerned, but I also think that kind of statement doesn’t fit the situation,” Kane said. “That’s a statement indicating (a nurse) did something wrong to a patient.”
Kane said the situation has also placed a focus on nurses and other health care professionals who are declining to be vaccinated even as a majority of those workers are holding the line in hospitals and other care facilities that are severely understaffed.
“When are we going to talk about the real problem: what’s happened to this profession and how badly we need people and what we’re going to do about it?” Kane said.
Officials with SUNY, including spokespersons at SUNY hospitals at Stony Brook on Long Island, Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, did not respond to questions about the letters on Friday. The university hospitals also did not immediately provide data on how many contract nurses have been hired since Sept. 27 — and at what cost to the state.
A spokeswoman for Stony Brook University Hospital late Friday issued a statement saying “133 of the original 198 employees who were suspended on Sept. 28 have been vaccinated and returned to work.”
The mandate is also causing unrest at other state agencies — including those that do not provide health services — because state employees are being required to be vaccinated by Friday — or be tested weekly — although the directive does not apply to potentially thousands of consultants and contract employees who work in state facilities.
“This directive applies to all employees, even those who are not currently reporting to the office,” states an email sent Tuesday to employees of the state’s Office of Information Technology Services. “This guidance only applies to State employees. It does not apply to consultants or contractors.”
The email noted that the Governors Office of Employee Relations had still not provided information on the testing requirements for unvaccinated state government employees. Many employees and labor unions have questioned whether workers would be tested while on the clock or their own time, and who would pay for the tests that cost as much as $75 each.
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.