COVID vaccine mandate in NY: 55,000 medical workers to get shots. But 35,000 refused.

David Robinson
New York State Team

New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for medical workers prodded about 55,600 people into getting shots over the past week, raising the partial vaccination rate at hospitals and nursing homes to 92%, according to statistics released by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

For hospitals, about 41,500 workers chose to get the shot to avoid losing their jobs, the numbers show, while about 13,000 nursing home workers did the same. Another 1,100 workers at adult care facilities also got shots between Sept. 20 and Monday’s vaccine mandate deadline, bringing their overall rate to 89%.

“This new information shows that holding firm on the vaccine mandate for health care workers is simply the right thing to do to protect our vulnerable family members and loved ones from COVID-19," Hochul said in a statement Tuesday.

While Hochul’s high-stakes gamble that many unvaccinated medical workers would comply with the mandate partially paid off, about 35,600 workers were still poised to leave jobs at hospitals, nursing homes and adult care facilities to avoid getting vaccinated, fueling concerns about staff shortages at some facilities.

That reflects losing nearly 5% of the overall workforce of about 692,000, according to the governor’s office. The mandate required medical workers to get at least the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines by Monday night.

In other words, about 25,400 hospital workers were medically eligible for vaccines but declining to do so, while about 8,200 nursing home workers were doing the same.

Dr. Radhika Hariharan, an infectious disease doctor at St. John's Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y. gets a COVID-19 vaccine from Linda Sugrue, R.N. on Dec. 15, 2020. Now New York mandates vaccines for all health workers.

As for adult care facilities, about 2,000 workers were medically eligible for vaccines but declining shots.

A fraction of the workforce at hospitals, nursing homes and adult care facilities, or less than 1%, was granted medical exemptions, the governor’s office noted.

Still, the vaccine mandate’s mixed results left some hospitals and nursing homes statewide scrambling to find replacement medical workers.

As a result, Hochul signed an executive order late Monday, in part, to streamline the hiring of vaccinated workers from other states and countries, as well as recent graduated and retirees.

“I am continuing to monitor developments and ready to take action to alleviate potential staffing shortage situations in our health care systems," Hochul said Tuesday.

NY COVID vaccine mandate:Thousands of medical workers got shots to keep jobs. What's next

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What health leaders say about NY vaccine mandate

New York has closed many mega-sites for vaccines, including one at the Crossgates Mall in Albany.

Some hospital leaders this week declared victory in meeting a goal to make health care facilities safer by curbing the risk of COVID-19 spreading among unvaccinated staff.

Other health providers placed vaccine holdouts on unpaid suspension, urging them to reconsider and get shots to return to their jobs on the pandemic frontlines.

“Hospital staff did respond to the governor’s call to do the right thing and get vaccinated by and large,” Suburban Hospital Alliance President and CEO Wendy Darwell said Tuesday.

“A fully vaccinated workforce is the best option for patients, for other health care employees and the community,” she added.

Yet the fallout from losing workers for some hospitals, especially small community hospitals, remained unclear Tuesday, Darwell added, citing how some facilities continued to warn patients of delays in accessing elective surgeries and other medical services.

“There certainly are hospitals upstate and scattered around the state that have a real staffing crunch right now that they’re managing,” she said.

The tense showdown also attracted national attention as other states planned to soon enact similar vaccine mandates for medical workers, and the Biden administration was poised to enact a national health care worker vaccine mandate in coming weeks.

Health leaders noted the looming prospect of a federal mandate might have contributed to the spike in medical worker vaccinations in New York, citing how it all but removed the option of employees fleeing to other states without mandates.

“That really levels the playing field,” Darwell said.

The Healthcare Association of New York State, which represents many hospitals statewide, also announced a partnership Tuesday with Nexxt, a hiring technology company, to aid health providers in New York in recruiting new workers.

In New York City, the public hospital system had about 5,000 of 43,000 workers, or about 11%, had yet to be vaccinated heading into Monday’s deadline. City officials on Tuesday said they expected that percentage of unvaccinated to drop as some workers reversed course and got shots.

“People are still streaming in and getting vaccinated. So, vax mandates clearly work,” said Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of the system, during a media briefing. Still, the city hospitals hired 500 nurses to fill staffing gaps caused by the mandate, he added.

“We knew that no matter what our efforts, some people were not going to get vaccinated, and we planned appropriately,” Katz said, adding the staffing challenges were being addressed and were “nothing like the horror that we went through in March 2020” amid the initial pandemic peak.

More: Hochul signs executive order to expand health care workforce amid COVID vaccine mandate

What to know about NY’s COVID vaccine mandate

Volunteer nurse Amy Schlegel, right, adminsters one of 100 COVID-19 vaccines for the day at New City Pharmacy on Thursday, February 4, 2021.

The estimates of medical workers keeping and losing their jobs in New York due to the vaccine mandate were based on numbers provided by the governor’s office.

It cited a one-time Health Electronic Response Data System survey of hospitals, nursing homes and adult care facilities on Monday to determine the vaccination status of workers at the time.

On Tuesday, Hochul, who replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month following his resignation, released the numbers showing nursing homes and hospitals overall reached a partial vaccination rate of about 92%, meaning workers had received at least one dose to comply with the mandate.

The Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines require two doses to be fully effective based on federal guidance. And the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine was recently granted federal approval for booster shots for ages 65 and older, as well as other age groups based on underlying health conditions and high-risk jobs.

The final self-reported data on hospital worker vaccinations is updated weekly on a state-run website and expected Wednesday. The nursing home data self-reported as of Monday showed an 89% partial vaccination rate.

In mid-August, when Cuomo announced the mandate, the governor’s office noted there were about 450,000 and 145,000 workers at hospitals and nursing homes, respectively. It wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday why Hochul’s administration cited a higher hospital staffing total or 519,000.

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Hochul's numbers also noted the the survey Monday found between 1% and 3.5% of staff at the medical facilities were going to get vaccinated but awaiting first doses, suggesting some workers on staggered shifts will get shots soon.

While the final medical worker vaccine numbers are calculated in New York, a new national survey suggested worker concerns about the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant also contributed to the spike in vaccinations.

Among the Kaiser Family Foundation, or KFF, survey findings on major reasons for getting shots:

  • 39% of adults cited the increase in COVID cases due to the Delta variant, compared to 38% saying reports of local hospitals filling up, and 36% who knew someone who became seriously ill or died.
  • 35% also say a major reason was to participate in activities where vaccinations are required, such as traveling or attending events.
  • Just 19% say being mandated by their employer drove them to get shots, while 15% cited the Food and Drug Administration granting full approval to the Pfizer vaccine.

“Nothing motivates people to get vaccinated quite like the impact of seeing a family member, friend or neighbor die or become seriously ill with COVID-19, or to worry that your hospital might not be able to save your life if you need it,” KFF President and CEO Drew Altman said in a statement.

“When a theoretical threat becomes a clear and present danger, people are more likely to act to protect themselves and their loved ones,” he added.

Still, the spike over the past week in New York in medical workers getting vaccinated suggested the mandate played a critical role in convincing them to get shots. The percentage of hospital workers jumped to 92% from 84%, while nursing homes increased from 83%.

Meanwhile, the national survey also found that self-reported vaccination rates increased most for Hispanic adults, rising 12 percentage points to 73% in September, and among adults ages 18 to 29, up 11 percentage points to 68%.

Similar shares of adults now report being vaccinated across racial and ethnic groups, a sign that the racial gap in vaccinations may be narrowing, the foundation noted, and a trend reflected in New York state data.

More: NY COVID vaccine mandate: Thousands of medical workers got shots to keep jobs. What's next

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud