ALBANY — Bringing health care workers from the Philippines and other countries to replace unvaccinated New York hospital and nursing home staffers is being considered to help facilities with their labor needs, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday.

She said approval for temporary visas would have to be granted by the U.S. Department of State.

"This is something we have to work with the (federal) Department of State on first," Hochul told reporters. "This is a conversation we have already been having to talk about the opportunity we might have in freeing up the visa system."

‘IT’S FRIGHTENING’

Hochul said she has also asked the prime minister of Ireland if that nation might have health care workers available to come to New York.

She said it is crucial that patients at hospitals and nursing homes are not left vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus by coming into contact with staffers who refuse the vaccine.

The staffers who have been vaccinated need to be protected as well, Hochul said.

"Those who have done the right thing don’t want to be with people who are not vaccinated, either," she said. "It’s frightening for them to be with co-workers who are not vaccinated."

WIDESPREAD SHORTAGES

Under a state mandate, all health care workers must have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Monday.

Stephen Hanse, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association, a group that represents long-term care providers, said a survey of the facilities has found widespread nursing shortages exist at the homes throughout the state.

Hanse's group is urging the Hochul administration to modify the vaccination mandate by allowing unvaccinated workers who agree to get tested for the virus regularly to be in compliance with the state's rules.

He called the potential for the labor shortage to increase "alarming," suggesting consequences could rip through the health care industry.

"If individuals in hospitals need to be discharged to a skilled nursing facility for rehab, but the facility doesn't have staff for that, then you will have backups in hospitals," Hanse said.

SO RIGID

Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison County, said he fears some patient care services offered by Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown and other health care providers in his district may be scaled back due to staffing shortages that he said will worsen because of the vaccination mandate.

"I am very disappointed that our new governor has been so rigid in her stand on this," Salka said. "Obviously, she has no idea about the staffing shortages the hospitals and nursing homes are already facing, and now she is just going to make it worse."

Bassett Healthcare Network has offered its employees the option to submit applications for a medical exemption or for a religious accommodation, said Gabrielle Argo, a spokeswoman for Bassett. Those applications, she said, "are reviewed carefully and thoughtfully by panels of clinicians, human resource leaders and other experts."

Each request, she added, "is progressing fairly through due process and deliberation."

As of Thursday, more than 90% of the Bassett network's employees has been vaccinated and "these numbers are increasing daily," Argo said.

SURPRISINGLY RESISTANT

According to Hochul, about 84% of all health care workers in the state have had at least one vaccine dose. She voiced optimism that the looming deadline will prompt more unvaccinated workers to get the shots over the next few days.

William Hammond, a fellow with the Empire Center for Public Policy, noted the health care workers who remain unvaccinated were part of a group of people who were among the first in New York to be eligible for the shots, yet many have avoided them.

"They have proven to be surprisingly resistant," said Hammond, who noted that at one point over the summer the vaccination rate among New York nursing home workers fell behind the rate of the adult population as a whole.

"Nursing home workers in particular should be a top priority because they have direct contact with frail and immune-compromised patients," he added, "I don't understand why they wouldn't want to be vaccinated."

COURT CASES

The state's ability to impose and enforce such vaccination mandates is already being tested in the courts.

The Civil Service Employees Association, New York's largest public employee union, has filed a lawsuit in an effort to block a vaccination mandate being imposed on employees of the state court system. The union argues the mandate infringes on employees' "bodily autonomy."

Hochul argued the dire warnings of crippling staffing shortages at hospitals and nursing homes paints a scenario that is "completely avoidable."

"I will be announcing a whole series of initiatives that we are doing to be prepared for a situation on Monday, which I hope doesn’t happen," the governor said. "It does not have to happen, my friends."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com

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