NY delays COVID booster mandate for medical workers amid concerns of staffing shortages

David Robinson
New York State Team

Enforcement of New York's COVID-19 booster shot mandate for medical workers, which was set to take effect Monday, will be delayed at least three months amid concerns it would trigger staffing shortages, state officials said Friday.

The striking reversal came after authorities learned up to 25% of New York's health care workforce was poised to miss the Monday deadline to receive the booster shot to avoid losing their jobs, according to state Department of Health statistics.

“While we are making progress with 75% of staff received or are willing to receive their booster, the reality is that not enough health care workers will be boosted by next week’s requirement in order to avoid substantial staffing issues in our already overstressed health care system," Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said in a statement Friday.

Bassett noted state officials will continue to work with health providers to increase uptake of COVID-19 booster shots among medical workers, including plans to make more booster doses available in health care settings.

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. Dec. 15, 2020.

State officials plan to reassess in three months whether additional steps need to be taken to increase booster rates among the health care workforce, the Health Department noted, without explicitly indicating if that included enforcing the booster mandate.

New York's medical-worker booster mandate was initially announced on Jan. 7, as the highly contagious omicron variant was fueling a winter surge in coronavirus cases that peaked at about 90,000 cases in one day. The move to delay the mandate comes after cases rapidly receded over the past month, hovering around 4,000 per day recently.

“The vaccine and booster are critical tools to keep both health care workers and their patients safe, and we continue to urge everyone to get vaccinated and receive a booster dose when eligible," Bassett added. 

Meanwhile, the requirement that New York health care workers be fully vaccinated — meaning two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines, or one Johnson & Johnson dose — remained in place. It took effect in late September, prompting about 34,000 medical workers, or 3% of the workforce, to quit or be fired instead of getting the shots.

Gov. Kathy Hochul enforced the initial vaccine mandate in September, despite pushback at the time from many health care leaders about the impact it would have on the workforce.

How many NY medical workers are getting COVID boosters

NY Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett

State officials released a breakdown Friday of how many medical workers received or planned to get the COVID-19 booster. The findings were self-reported by health care facilities to the state Department of Health.

Among the findings:

  • Only 51% of nursing home workers, or nearly 76,000 workers, have received a booster, or are willing and awaiting the booster.
  • 70% of home care workers, or nearly 190,000 workers, fall into the same category.
  • And 63% of adult care facility workers, or about 18,900, are in the same group.
  • A total of 84% of hospital workers, or about 433,000 workers, also have gotten or intend to get the booster.

Overall, nearly 449,000 medical workers in New York have already received a COVID-19 booster shot, while nearly 285,000 were described as "willing and awaiting booster," the statistics show.

The booster doses of Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna were 90% effective at keeping people out of the hospital after they had become infected with the omicron variant. The doses also were 82% effective at preventing emergency department and urgent care visits, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released last month shows.

Nationally, about 50% of eligible people have received a booster dose, CDC data show. People ages 12 and above are eligible for boosters. 

Health officials' decision to delay enforcement of the booster mandate comes as New York and other states are beginning to relax pandemic-related restrictions, including New York lifting the indoor mask mandate for businesses earlier this month.

More: Hochul extends NY’s COVID state of emergency into March with cases dropping. What to know

Still, Gov. Kathy Hochul this week extended the COVID-related state of emergency in New York, which was set to expire Tuesday, through March 16, despite declining coronavirus cases.

USA TODAY Network contributed to this report.

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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