ALBANY — With the state preparing to enforce a new mandate requiring all New York hospital staffers to be vaccinated for COVID-19, health care administrators are worried the move could exacerbate staffing shortages dogging medical facilities.

"We already have nurse staffing shortages in some of our upstate communities and now this is going to make it worse," Gary Fitzgerald, president of the Iroquois Healthcare Alliance, told CNHI Tuesday.

REGULAR TESTING

Hospital administrators are now considering asking state officials to revise the mandate by allowing the staffers to continue to work if they have not been vaccinated but agree to regular COVID-19 testing.

The new rule is set to take effect Sept. 27. On that date, workers, students and volunteers at hospitals and nursing homes must have received at least the initial dose of one of the vaccines.

The only available exemption is for medical reasons, and those exemptions can only be granted by physicians or certified nurse practitioners. State officials disqualified religious exemptions from the mandate.

Fitzgerald said about 21% of the dozens of upstate medical facilities that make up the alliance's membership have not been vaccinated.

"At this point in the pandemic, it's pretty tough to convince people who don't want to be vaccinated to become vaccinated," he said.

The regulation was adopted by the state Public Health and Health Planning Council Aug. 26. It is set to remain in force for 90 days, though it could be subject to revisions or extensions.

EMPLOYMENT CHALLENGES

Fitzgerald said there is concern that staffers who have no desire to become vaccinated will give up their jobs, creating major challengers for their employers, given the scarce pool of available labor in the health care industry.

In a related development, Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison, said he and a Utica-area lawyer, Gina Antonelli, will be staging a seminar for health care workers and others who are interested in applying for a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate on Friday at a Utica church.

Salka said he is aware the state has decided to disallow requests for religious exemptions. But he reasoned a denied request for a religious exemption could potentially set the stage for a legal appeal of the regulation.

"We are hearing from people on this from all over upstate New York," said Salka, who opposes the state mandate. "This is literally going to impact thousands of health care workers."

He predicted the mandate will "negatively effect the staffing levels at hospitals and nursing homes."

The state Department of Health, responding to an inquiry from CNHI, signaled it is aware of the concerns that the new mandate may impact hospital staffing.

"However, our overriding focus is the protection of patients and residents in our healthcare settings, which is why everyone who is medically able should be vaccinated, especially healthcare workers who interact and care for our most vulnerable, at-risk New Yorkers," said Erin Silk, spokeswoman for the agency.

Silk said her agency is prepared to "listen to any and all input" on vaccine policy.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, who is the chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said he hopes the Health Department stands firm with the vaccination mandate at hospitals, nursing homes and other health facilities.

Gottfried also said he views Salka's efforts to disseminate information on applying for religious exemptions from the mandate as "misleading."

"I'm not aware of any religion whose beliefs argue against vaccination," Gottfried said.

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

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