Healthcare groups and local officials were pleased to see an order temporarily blocking a COVID-19 vaccine mandate from gutting staff levels, but vaccination levels vary widely at area nursing homes and adult care facilities.
Announced in August by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the plan calls for hospitals and nursing homes to be at 100% compliance by Sept. 27, while adult care facilities have until Oct. 7. If staff members are not in compliance, termination is the expected course of action.
However, a federal judge in Utica on Tuesday temporarily halted the order while a case involving 17 doctors and nurses in the Northern District of New York is decided.
According to data from the state Department of Health, if the orders were implemented today, staff shortages of up to half of staff being terminated would hit skilled nursing and adult care facilities in the area.
Five skilled nursing facilities out of 608 in the state reported 100% vaccination rates among staff — less than 1% — and none were in Allegany or Cattaraugus counties. Locally, the percentage of staff with at least one dose ranges from 68% at Houghton Rehabilitation & Nursing Center to 88.5% at Wellsville Manor Care Center.
Across the state, 45 out of 541 adult care facilities reported 100% vaccination rates among staff — about 8% — and none of which are located in Allegany or Cattaraugus counties. The percentage of staff with at least one vaccine dose ranges locally from 49.2% at Field of Dreams Senior Living in Allegany to 84.2% at Underwood Manor, Hinsdale.
State Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, expressed encouragement at the court decision.
“This is a positive step that I hope is the impetus for the state to withdraw the mandate altogether,” he said. “Whether the objections are religious, medical or personal, no one should be forced to take a vaccine against their will. The right path to vaccination is by building consensus and confidence, not through coercion, shaming and threats of termination.
“In our region, we are already seeing health care workers quit their jobs in opposition to the mandate,” he added.
Earlier Tuesday, Borrello’s office released a letter he penned to Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker calling for a transfer to a “vaxx or test” system for health care workers.
Under the proposal — which is similar to one in place in Pennsylvania for healthcare staff, prison guards and other state workers — staff that are unvaccinated would be required to undergo weekly testing for the disease.
“The practical implications of this impending exodus of health care workers are dire and have the potential to severely impair the ability of hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities to operate at full capacity,” Borrello said. “This is particularly concerning because the health care sector has already been experiencing significant staffing shortages for several years. They lack any kind of a staffing ‘cushion’ that could mitigate the impact of mandate-driven staff departures.”
Borrello also relayed comments from Nick Ferreri, owner of The Tanglewood Group, which operates Field of Dreams assisted living facility in Allegany, that departing employees “will leave behind an ominous situation of grossly under-staffed facilities for those who remain employed. So ominous that I believe it will be extraordinarily difficult to keep them resilient enough to carry on.
“One hundred memory-impaired, dependent residents and another 130 elderly residents, many of whom have no family and no options, will need someone to care for them,” Ferreri added. “Already at this point, skilled nursing facilities are refusing to accept new admissions, and other assisted living facilities are discharging residents, in anticipation of the impending deadline.”
Some providers have seen increased vaccinations since the mandate was announced.
Underwood Manor in Hinsdale is expected to be in compliance by the deadline regardless of any court challenges, according to administrators. A number of workers have recently been vaccinated with a first dose — about 14% of staff at the 32-bed adult care facility. All residents have been fully vaccinated, and no COVID-confirmed deaths have been reported at the facility.
“We have three or four staff members who haven’t received their first doses yet … everybody is planning on getting vaccinated,” said Trisha Feuchter, the facility’s administrator. “We did lose one staff member who was not going to get vaccinated.”
Feuchter expressed relief at the court’s order Tuesday, but said with the current and expected numbers of vaccinated staff that no serious changes in operation would be necessary regardless of the outcome.
The ruling Tuesday is part of just one challenge working through the court systems. On Sunday, a federal judge in Syracuse — in the state’s Eastern District federal court — denied a temporary restraining order against the state filed by several nurses in Syracuse-area hospitals. A motion to stay enforcement while an appeal proceeded in that case was denied on Monday.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that none of the vaccines are 100% effective at stopping the spread, those who are vaccinated typically suffer less serious complications from the disease when it does take root. One vaccine — by Pfizer — has received standard approval, while others including the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are issued under emergency authorizations.
The latest news comes a day after Olean General Hospital announced 11 workers resigned over the mandate. Rumors circulate at other facilities of “mass resignations,” but few other resignations have been confirmed.