Deadline nears for unvaccinated hospital, nursing home staff
Hospital and nursing home personnel in New York state face a deadline next week to get vaccinated or lose their jobs. At the same time, Gov. Kathy Hochul is fighting a court challenge to the state’s decision to not allow religious exemptions.
Under an Aug. 16 order, the state’s 450,000 hospital employees and 145,000 nursing home workers — including those in Dutchess and Putnam counties — must receive at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Monday (Sept. 27). The same order also requires employees at adult-care facilities to receive at least an initial dose by Oct. 7.
Employees with pre-existing conditions can qualify for a medical exemption if a doctor or nurse practitioner certifies that a COVID-19 vaccine could harm their health, but the order does not allow for religious exemptions. Absent a medical exemption, workers who lose their job for refusing the vaccine are not eligible for unemployment payments.
Some hospital systems such as NewYork-Presbyterian (which owns Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor and has medical offices in Cold Spring) and Nuvance Health (which owns the Putnam Hospital Center in Carmel and Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie) had set their own deadlines.
NewYork-Presbyterian set a Wednesday (Sept. 23) deadline and said in a statement on Thursday that fewer than 250 of its 37,000 employees and 11,000 affiliated doctors had not complied.
As of two weeks ago, the vaccination rate among Putnam Hospital doctors and staff was 74 percent and at Vassar Brothers 70 percent, according to a Nuvance representative. In Newburgh, 82 percent of the staff at Montefiore St. Luke’s Cornwall was fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to state data.
Nursing homes, where staff members are far less likely to be vaccinated than the patients, show the same kind of variation. At Wingate at Beacon, 83.3 percent of staff had completed their vaccine shots as of Monday, while the Fishkill Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Beacon had the second-lowest rate (62.6 percent) among Dutchess County’s 13 nursing homes.
Workplaces are just one of the settings in which unvaccinated New Yorkers are feeling social pressure from mandates. People are “much more likely to respond to their being systematically excluded from the institutions that they care about,” said Adam Seth Litwin, an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“Part of that would involve their employer, but it’s also going to involve restaurants, churches — local groups that say: ‘Listen, you’re a part of our community; we know you and we know you well. Unfortunately, we’re not allowing people who haven’t been vaccinated to take part in our activities.’ ”
That also has been the position of some religious institutions. The Long Island Diocese of the Episcopal Church set a Sept. 15 deadline for its clergy and staff to be vaccinated. In Cold Spring, the Rev. Steve Schunk, priest-in-charge at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, said he tells parishioners that “loving our neighbors” requires protecting them from harm.
“We have irrefutable proof from medicine and science that being vaccinated from COVID-19 not only protects them but also protects us,” he said.
In a memo distributed in July to pastors, administrators and parochial vicars, the Archdiocese of New York reiterated the Catholic Church’s acceptance of vaccines as a “moral responsibility” and said its priests have “no basis” for issuing religious exemptions.
Such exemptions are the basis for a federal lawsuit challenging New York’s vaccine mandate. It was filed by 17 health care professionals who argue that the mandate violates their constitutional rights because it does not allow religious exemptions.
The plaintiffs claim they oppose the use of laboratory-grown cells, derived from the tissue of aborted fetuses collected decades ago, to develop the vaccines, although the three companies whose vaccines are authorized for use in the U.S. each say none contain fetal cells or any “human-derived materials.”
In a legal response on Wednesday (Sept. 22), the state noted that health care workers are not allowed to refuse mandated vaccines for measles and rubella based on religious belief. New York also does not allow religious exemptions for mandated school vaccinations.
A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the state from disallowing requests for religious exemptions and set a hearing for Tuesday (Sept. 28).
Teachers and staff
Hochul announced on Sept. 2 that public school teachers and staff must either be vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. But a few teachers have bristled at the requirements.
Laurie Malin, a science teacher at Rombout Middle School, raised her concerns to the school board at its Sept. 13 meeting. “We know that the COVID-19 vaccination does not prevent you from getting COVID or spreading COVID,” she said, alleging that test swabs contain “a cancer-causing agent that damages DNA” and causes migraines and other ill effects.
She also called the vaccine “an experimental gene therapy that will alter your DNA, that has more deaths and adverse effects associated with it—” (In fact, there is no evidence to support any of these claims.)
Board President Meredith Heuer cut Malin off, saying she had reached the four-minute limit for public comments.
At a meeting last month, Joy Bonneau, a special education teacher at Glenham Elementary, told the board that getting the vaccine is “a medical decision that should in no way be forced on people, especially not with threats attached. That is no way to build trust.” She argued that vaccines don’t prevent transmission and “one needs to be infected in order for it to work.” (In fact, a vaccine triggers an immune response that makes it far less likely a person will become seriously ill if infected.)
The Roundhouse restaurant in Beacon announced this week that, as of Oct. 7, it will require diners to show proof of vaccination. It is one of the first establishments in the region to impose a mandate.
The Towne Crier Cafe in Beacon has required proof of vaccination or a negative test for watching performances since August (a social distancing section for the non-vaccinated is available during free shows). On Garrison’s Landing, Dolly’s requires vaccination for indoor dining.
On Wednesday (Sept. 22), Roundhouse manager Katie Guerra provided several reasons for the mandate, including the 25,000-plus people who visit the restaurant or its hotel and event space, each year, from all over the world and that “we cannot risk a staff member being unable to work due to a COVID-19 infection, let alone having a few staff members out due to an infection or exposure.”
The company is also catching up on a backlog of weddings. “Some of these clients signed on with us in 2019 and have waited patiently for their very important day,” Guerra said. “The last thing we want is to have to cancel a wedding because of a COVID outbreak in our staff.”
In Beacon, City Administrator Chris White said he considered mandating vaccination for new hires but a shrinking labor pool forced him to rethink the idea. (He noted that the city recently interviewed three candidates for a position in the Police Department but all three instead accepted jobs in Poughkeepsie.)
White acknowledged that a mandate could cause friction with unions. He estimated that 75 percent of city employees are vaccinated and said the city is “highly recommending” it for everyone.
Jeff Simms contributed reporting.
It’s disturbing to read about a middle school science teacher espousing during a school board meeting in Beacon what sounds like sci-fi thriller novel content (“experimental gene therapy” and “cancer-causing agent”) in making anti-vaccination decisions and resisting COVID testing. It makes me think she is a seriously questionable influence on young minds in terms of science study in general, let alone endangering their health and safety.