Mandate on hold, unvaccinated Sunmount staff continue working

The main Sunmount facility, a state institution for developmentally disabled, is seen here in 2017. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — A federal vaccine mandate that would have put hundreds of Sunmount employees’ jobs in limbo was put on hold last week before its first deadline, allowing around 440 unvaccinated staff at the facility to keep working and delaying a potential staffing crisis there.

A federal judge has temporarially blocked the mandate from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which was ordered by President Joe Biden. The initial deadline for staff at state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities facilities, like Sunmount, to get their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine was Dec. 5.

OPWDD Deputy Communications Director Denise DeCarlo said no Sunmount employees have been put on leave, as the mandate is now on hold.

Following the federal court’s preliminary injunction of the mandate, CMS and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have appealed the decision in an attempt to overturn it and reinstate the mandate. This court battle could bring the vaccine mandate case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One-third of staff unvaccinated

DeCarlo said that 63% of Sunmount’s 1,180 staff members are vaccinated. That means around 440 staff members are unvaccinated and would need to get vaccinated to keep working if this mandate is reinstated.

“OPWDD’s goal is compliance, not discipline,” OPWDD Communications Director Jennifer O’Sullivan wrote in an email last month. “Staff who have failed to comply with the mandates, however, may be subject to appropriate discipline.”

She did not expound on what that discipline would entail.

Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun, who sits on Sunmount’s board of visitors, said if staff were put on leave because of this mandate, the rest of the 740 vaccinated Sunmount employees would have to work mandatory overtime to fill in the gaps. The facility is already understaffed, he said.

The CMS order would require everyone working at health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds, as Sunmount does, to be vaccinated to work with clients, or lose their federal funding.

Maroun said last month that Sunmount receives millions of dollars in federal aid, so losing it is not an option.

OPWDD and Maroun both urged Sunmount employees to get vaccinated even if they are not required to, for the safety of their clients, coworkers, family, friends and themselves.

Maroun pointed out that developmentally disabled residents of Sunmount often have weakened immune systems.

Case continues

The mandate was halted by Judge Terry Doughty, a justice in a federal court in Louisiana.

In his conclusion, Doughty said he blocked the mandate because he believes it was not right for Biden to request the mandate without congressional approval.

“If human nature and history teach anything, it is that civil liberties face grave risks when governments proclaim indefinite states of emergency,” Doughty wrote.

This case occurred because 24 states sued the Biden administration over the mandate in two separate cases. Though New York was not one of these states, Doughty expanded his ruling on the mandate to include all states.

“There are unvaccinated healthcare workers in other states who also need protection,” he wrote.

The higher courts who hear this case are likely to consider two additional factors — the safety of staff and clients vaccines provide versus the possible staffing crises losing unvaccinated staff could cause.

“OPWDD continues to strongly encourage all staff working in Intermediate Care Facilities, including OPWDD’s Developmental Centers, to follow the federal guidance concerning vaccination against COVID-19,” DeCarlo wrote in an email. “OPWDD has seen an uptick in staff vaccinations agency-wide over the last few weeks and encourages staff to continue to vaccinate so that people with developmental disabilities can continue to be safely supported.”

Right now, unvaccinated staff are able to continue working under a state vaccine mandate by submitting to weekly COVID-19 testing in lieu of getting the vaccine, but the CMS federal mandate would not allow for that to continue.


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