Olean General Hospital

Ambulances sit outside the Emergency Room entrance at Olean General Hospital in August.

{child_byline}By BOB CLARK

Special to The Era

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OLEAN, N.Y. — Eleven workers at Olean General Hospital have resigned due to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, officials reported Monday.

The hospital, which employs 840 workers, according to parent group Upper Allegheny Health System officials, is encouraging staff to get vaccinated but caution state and federal officials against mandating vaccines without a testing opt-out system that would keep hundreds of workers on the payroll amid a new wave of the disease.

Following an order by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August, the state will require all hospital and nursing home employees to get vaccinated or be fired. No opt-out system using weekly tests is allowed under the order. The order extends Oct. 7 to diagnostic and treatment centers.

More than a dozen states have similar orders in place. An executive order by President Joe Biden last week could extend that mandate nationwide to all health care facilities which receive federal money — such as Medicare or Medicaid dollars.

“While the majority of OGH’s 840 employees are on record as being vaccinated (68%), there are still more than 250 employees who have chosen to decline vaccination, enough to push the hospital into a disaster status, should these employees elect to leave the organization as a result of the mandate,” said Dennis McCarthy, a hospital spokesman.

“This is a perfect storm for hospitals,” he said. “We are battling a new wave of COVID with staffing challenges, fighting to recruit and retain nurses and support staff. As a result, we are working closely with our State representatives and the New York State Healthcare Association to make sure our concerns are heard clearly in Albany.”

McCarthy said the hospital nor its parents UAHS or Kaleida Health are involved in the budding lawsuits against the state seeking a reversal of the order, which Cattaraugus County officials said on Thursday they would join. Cattaraugus County owns two nursing homes covered by the order.

While sizable portions of local hospitals are vaccinated, thousands of workers across the region could be affected.

According to the state Department of Health, 89% of hospital staff in the state had been fully vaccinated by Wednesday. In Western New York, 79% of hospital staff had been fully vaccinated, including 76% of Allegany County and 75% of Cattaraugus County hospital staff.

State officials said Cuba Memorial Hospital reported 79% of staff is vaccinated, while 75% of Jones Memorial Hospital and Olean General Hospital staff are fully vaccinated.

McCarthy said the number used by the state may be different because of staff not notifying the hospital of their status, but he was skeptical of the 75% tally.

The state rates in the region varied between 56% of staff at Mercy Hospital-Orchard Park to 100% at John Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. OGH has one of the higher vaccination rates for the five Kaleida Health hospitals in the state. It is tied with Buffalo General Medical Center, state officials reported, with 70% of Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital and Degraff Memorial Hospital staff being fully vaccinated. Oishei leads the Kaleida hospitals. The network has higher overall rates at its hospitals than Catholic Health of Buffalo.

Bradford Regional Medical Center, part of UAHS and Kaleida, is not covered by the state’s order, McCarthy said. Pennsylvania however has a “vaccine or test” mandate on hospital staff.

Such a model could help stem the tide of the pandemic without gutting workforces, he added.

“The mandate is causing hospitals and nursing homes across New York, particularly rural facilities, grave concerns to the extent they are preparing disaster plans given the large number of employees who play a critical role in care delivery and support and thus far have refused vaccination. Olean General Hospital is no exception. Services could be profoundly impacted.

“These are employees from nearly every department across the organization, including nursing, who have thus far declined vaccination. This situation is playing out not only here in the Southern Tier, but across New York State.”

McCarthy said the administration is looking at the jobs being performed by unvaccinated staff to see what impacts losing those staff would have.

“As we have stated previously, we are already experiencing challenges and are doing everything possible to recruit and retain employees,” McCarthy said. “However, should the vaccination mandate be implemented as stated, it will be a tipping point, impacting hospital services across New York, including Olean General.

“The matter is out of our hands, but it is our hope that somewhere between now and Sept. 27, efforts will be made to avoid a statewide catastrophe in healthcare. Still, we can see the train coming down the tracks and it is getting closer,” McCarthy said. “We are grateful and proud of all those employees who have been vaccinated, but we need to be a 100% vaccinated organization. We are appealing to all our unvaccinated employees to help by getting vaccinated. Our patients and the community needs our employees vaccinated, now more than ever.”

Jones Memorial Hospital officials said they would seek information requested by the Times Herald for release later in the week.

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(Contact City Editor Bob Clark at bclark@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)

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