LITTLE VALLEY — Cattaraugus County’s two nursing homes have temporarily paused accepting new admissions because officials are afraid of the impact of a state Health Department directive requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
In addition, county lawmakers have authorized the county’s attorney, Ashley Milliman, to file a lawsuit against the state for imposing an unconstitutional mandate with no religious exemption or due process available to the county.
“(The lawsuit) is still in its early stages” and the county was open to adding other plaintiffs, Milliman said Thursday afternoon in a call that included County Administrator Jack Searles and Deputy Administrator Kelly Reed, who also oversees the Pines nursing homes. “There’s strength in numbers.”
Searles said the emergency regulation in question was issued Aug. 26 by the state’s Public Health Planning Council. It requires all nursing home employees and health department employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 27 and Oct. 7, respectively. There is no religious exemption.
“We need to be able to continue to provide high quality care to residents of the nursing homes,” Searles said. “This is going to wreck absolute havoc on the health care system across the state — especially in the nursing homes.”
In Cattaraugus County, 94% of residents in skilled nursing facilities or nursing homes, 70% of employees are vaccinated against COVID.
That leaves 30% of nursing home staff who work with the most fragile residents unvaccinated in this surge by the Delta variant which is apparently a factor in a number of the breakthrough cases among those who have been vaccinated.
“Because we are licensed by the state, we need to move forward,” Searles said. “We are in conversations with staff and residents.” He said the window for staff vaccinations “is closing quickly.”
State employees facing a vaccine mandate can opt out in favor of frequent testing, Searles observed.
Reed said the twice-a-week testing of all staff — unvaccinated and vaccinated — over the past year has found individuals who test positive before they come into a facility.
Searles said the testing is better than everyone being vaccinated and not testing because of breakthrough cases of people who are vaccinated contracting the virus. “We were not afforded that opportunity” by the state, he added.
Searles is not sure how many nursing homes employees in Olean and Machias will agree to be vaccinated before the upcoming deadline. Some have vowed not to be vaccinated.
Reed said the pause in new admissions at the Machias and Olean facilities was necessary. “It would be irresponsible of us to bring in new residents” at this time, she said. “We need to provide quality care to residents.”
The county nursing homes, like most other health care facilities in the state, have had difficulty hiring new registered nurses, supervisors and other employees for several months. The county has contracted with more than one agency to provide qualified people to fill some of those unfilled jobs.
Searles hopes the lawsuit will be successful and keep the mandate from going into play.
“There is an easy solution,” Searles said. “You test before you come into the facility.”
Milliman said the lawsuit “has the support of the legislature. They made a commitment to their constituents to do everything we can to deal with any regulations they thought was unconstitutional.”