A hospital in upstate New York says it will temporarily pause maternity services later this month after 30 people quit over the facility’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. That could put expecting mothers at risk when it’s time for them to deliver their babies. Some patients will have to go out of their way to the next closest maternity ward.
It’s just the latest scuffle between hospital administrators and healthcare workers as the debate over vaccine mandates continues to heat up.
Going on Pause
During a press conference over the weekend, Lewis County Health System CEO Gerald Cayer announced that the facility will be “unable to safely staff” its maternity ward starting Sept. 25 after a mass exodus of staffers.
The turnover comes just two weeks after the company announced it will comply with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that all NY healthcare providers receive at least one shot of the vaccine by September 27. Workers can no longer opt out of the shot due to religious exemptions, but medical exemptions are still valid.
“The number of resignations received leaves us no choice but to pause delivering babies at Lewis County General Hospital,” Cayer said. “It is my hope that the (state) Department of Health will work with us in pausing the service rather than closing the maternity department.”
Of the 30 workers that resigned, 21 worked in clinical areas. Despite the recent loss of staff, Cayer added that 30 additional workers have gotten vaccinated since the mandate was announced.
He added that 73% of all Lewis County General employees have been vaccinated so far. Another 165 workers have yet to decide whether they will get the shot as the deadline approaches. Three workers have received medical exemptions, and another twelve said they plan to apply for the same status.
Cayer said other additional departments are at risk of closing if more workers decide to quit rather than complying with the mandate. “Essential health services are not at risk because of the mandate,” he said during the press conference. “The mandate ensures we will have a healthy workforce and we are not responsible for (causing COVID-19) transmission in or out of our facilities.”
Cayer confirmed he is in favor of mandating the shot for all healthcare workers.
“The COVID-19 vaccines are effective and when combined with masking, health care workers, patients, residents, visitors and the larger community are provided the highest level of protection,” he said. “We as employees have an obligation not to put those that we care for or our coworkers at risk.”
While much of New York has been able to keep the delta variant in check, northern parts of the state haven’t been as lucky.
“Lewis County has the highest seven-day and 14-day positivity rates in the state of New York over the past three days,” Cayer added.
The county currently has a 7-day infection rate of 7.6% and a 14-day average of 5.7%.
“Positivity rates for Lewis County and the north country are heading in the wrong direction,” Cayer said. As a result, the facility recently had to adjust its visitation policy to limit the number of people on the floor.
Cayer added that there are five workers in quarantine and another five in isolation.
“We truly have worked hard to educate, encourage, cajole (and) support individuals to get comfortable with receiving the vaccine, but we are not passing judgment on any single person who says it’s not right for them,” Mr. Cayer said.
“We don’t want to lose anyone. We would like everyone to get vaccinated, but we also understand we live in a country where you get to choose certain things and if you choose not to be vaccinated now, you can’t work in health care. We just simply respect; we thank for service; and we each move forward.”
No Religious Exemptions
The state of New York left religious exemptions out of the final bill when issuing its vaccinate mandate. Many providers are used to having the option of excusing themselves from routine vaccinations if they violate their religious beliefs. In some areas, anyone that opts out must get tested weekly and wear masks, but this option is no longer available under the new mandate.
Cayer said he’s been asking the New York Department of Health to revise its vaccination policy so that workers can receive religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine. The state says it will revise its mandate policy in 90 days. Workers were asked to apply for religious exemptions in case they are reinstated down the line.
However, the health network CEO added that all employees have been vaccinated against the measles, mumps, rubella, and Hepatitis-B. He notes that there are no religious exemptions for those vaccines either.
Workers applying for a medical exemption must provide a note from a doctor or physician.
“The fact that we have only granted three waivers to date I think speaks to a tool that’s fair, concise and accurate,” Cayer said, while explaining the “very science-driven selection process” he and his team used to craft the medical exemption process.
The decision leaves the facility vulnerable as rural areas struggle to hire and retain qualified healthcare workers.
“The vaccination mandate has taken our eyes off the real challenge and that is there is a critical health care staffing challenge,” Cayer explained. “We have been recruiting for nurses for years and for OB/GYNs, for years. We are not alone. There are thousands of positions that are open north of the (state) Thruway (stretching from Albany to Rochester).”
If any of the 30 staffers that quit decide to roll up their sleeves and come back to work, they’ll be welcomed with open arms.
“We’ve been very clear,” Mr. Cayer said. “Anyone who has resigned that changes their mind will be welcomed back.”