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Hospitals weigh requiring vaccines

ALBANY — The question of whether health care staffers should be required to get vaccinated for the COVID-19 contagion has emerged as a hot topic among upstate hospital administrators.

“It is really a topic of discussion right now at all the hospitals we represent,” said Gary Fitzgerald, president of the Iroquois Healthcare Alliance, a network that includes dozens of upstate medical facilities.

The state Department of Health, which regulates hospitals in the state, is strongly urging health care workers to get vaccinated. However, the agency has stopped short of recommending that health facilities require the shots as a condition of employment.

Vaccine mandates

The issue of embracing a vaccination mandate for physicians, nurses and other health care staffers involved in patient care heated up this month after Trinity Health directed its employees to get vaccinated by Sept. 21.

Trinity operates St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany and Samaritan Hospital in Troy. Catholic Health in Western New York, which is affiliated with Trinity Health, has not adopted the vaccination mandate for employees.

Trinity says exemptions from the mandate will be available for those citing health reasons if they are documented and approved. The health system has warned employees who do not meet the criteria for exemptions and do not show proof of vaccination will face termination of their employment.

Staffing challenges

Fitzgerald told CNHI that an acute shortage of some health professionals, particularly registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, is being evaluated as administrators weigh the impacts of imposing a vaccination mandate on employees.

There is already concern in the hospital industry that the staffing challenges in New York will be exacerbated by new legislation directing hospitals to come up with a plan for minimum staffing levels within their facilities, he noted.

Iroquois Healthcare Alliance member hospitals include the University of Vermont Health Network facilities in Plattsburgh, Elizabethtown and Malone, as well as Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown; A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital in Oneonta; Cobleskill Regional Hospital; O’Connor Hospital in Delhi; and UHS Chenango Memorial Hospital in Norwich.

The New York debate is intensifying in the wake of a call last week by a coalition of health care organizations to make a COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment at health facilities.

In the absence of such a requirement, “a sufficient vaccination rate is unlikely to be achieved,” the coalition said in a statement. Member organizations included the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society and several other groups.

Local rates high

Opponents of vaccination mandates have raised both legal and ethical objections to such policies. The New York Nurses Association, which has led union drives at numerous New York hospitals, is adamantly opposed to such mandates.

The state began mandating flu shots for hospital and clinical workers since 2009. Workers who refuse the flu vaccine are required to follow masking protocols.

Two years ago, one of the largest upstate hospitals, Albany Medical Center, briefly suspended nine nurses who did not follow the hospital’s directive that they get flu shots.

Essex County had one of the highest rates in the state for hospital workers getting the shots, with 90% having had the vaccinations as of July 14. Franklin and Clinton counties were at 88% and 86% respectively.

The statewide rate for vaccinations for hospital workers was put at 74%, meaning about one out of four staffers has gone without the shots or has not completed them.

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