SARATOGA SPRINGS — With 80% of its employees vaccinated against COVID and more of the surrounding community vaccinated every day, Saratoga Hospital is seeing a marked decrease in COVID infections among staff.
New infections were confirmed in 50 of the hospital’s 3,070 employees in December and 43 in January, but just six in February and seven so far in March.
Stragglers continue to be vaccinated now, but the bulk of the hospital staffers who got the shots received them from late December to late January, coinciding neatly with the drop-off in reported new infections.
The degree of improvement is such that the hospital is relaxing some of the restrictions on its staff who are vaccinated — they can sit close together in the cafeteria without plexiglass barriers and can enter the hospital without a temperature check.
The hospital is also trying to envision what the end stages of the pandemic will look like.
“We’ve had these conversations here, and frankly the whole world is having these conversations,” CEO Angelo Calbone said Thursday. “This really came down to, how do we begin to offer some freedoms to our staff to recognize that they’ve been vaccinated?”
They were ready for a break, he said.
The late 2020/early 2021 surge was worse than the first in volume if not severity of illness, Calbone said, “really putting a tremendous strain on our staff.”
Aside from the fact that it intentionally brings COVID-infected people on-site to help them get better again, Saratoga Hospital is like a microcosm of the business world and society in general, pitching vaccination to people who might be reluctant to receive it, and pondering how to move forward with the employees who decline.
Dr. Michael Holland, director of employee health and occupational medicine at Saratoga Hospital, said in-house surveys conducted before the vaccine was available found that only 67% of employees wanted it.
“I think a lot of people were afraid of the new vaccine because it is a new vaccine technology,” he said of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines, which were the first to be authorized for use in the United States.
The number grew to 80% as the initial holdouts saw the vaccination effort proceeding with minimal negative impacts on recipients.
Holland sees 80% has a win but wishes the number were higher. The hospital mounts education efforts to boost the numbers, and he’ll talk individually with anyone who asks.
“Everyone in the hospital organization has my cellphone number and my email.”
Calbone said some people refuse the COVID vaccine because of medical reasons and others because of a general aversion to all vaccines. It’s a third group, the mildly skeptical holdouts, who are most likely to change their mind.
“We do see positive movement as workforces get more and more vaccinated,” Calbone said, and people see their coworkers doing fine after the shot.
“Will we get to 100%? I don’t think so.”
Holland noted that the hospital’s steps to ease restrictions for vaccinated employees is limited and specific in scope: Masking, distancing and other precautions still are mandatory in most situations.
The three COVID vaccines in use in the United States are authorized for emergency use by federal regulators but not approved for general use, and as such, people cannot be mandated to receive them, Holland said. However, employers are allowed to make vaccination a condition of employment, he said, which is not exactly the same thing.
And the FDA is moving toward approving the vaccines, Holland said, which would remove the barrier to a mandate.
Saratoga Hospital has not decided whether it will require the last 20% of employees to be vaccinated, Calbone said, and will likely rely heavily on guidance from state and federal health regulators and the hospital industry to make a decision.
The effort toward voluntary vaccination continues at Saratoga Hospital — a group of employees was vaccinated as recently as Thursday.
Holland still recalls the first employee vaccination clinic on Dec. 22.
“You should have seen it — it was celebratory,” he said.
Public-facing and high-risk employees had first priority, then those such as billing personnel who wouldn’t have direct contact with infected patients but would have direct contact with workers who did.
“Vaccination really is the off-ramp to get out of this nightmare,” Holland said.
WHAT’S IN A NUMBER?
With 80% of employees vaccinated, Saratoga Hospital is somewhat ahead of the statewide average, which a state dashboard indicated was 74% as of Friday morning, and somewhat behind the Capital Region, which was 87%.
Early on in the vaccination campaign, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a hard push to get hospital employees vaccinated, publicly calling out hospitals that were lagging and praising those that were excelling in this effort.
In various briefings, he named most of the hospitals in and around the Capital Region as being in one group or the other. So on Jan. 27, The Daily Gazette submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the Department of Health for the percentages of employees vaccinated at all area hospitals. The DOH on March 1 said it would need roughly another two months and two days to gather the data.
It still has not provided the information.
But if the county-level data provided in the state’s online dashboard is correct, it’s easy enough to figure out some hospitals’ employee vaccination rates, because they’re the only hospital in that county:
- 80% in Columbia County, Columbia Memorial Hospital
- 83% in Fulton County, Nathan Littauer Hospital
- 70% in Montgomery County, St. Mary’s Health Care
- 99% in Rensselaer County, Samaritan Hospital
- 64% in Schoharie County, Cobleskill Regional Hospital
- 75% in Warren County, Glens Falls Hospital
Albany County stands at 90% employee vaccination and Schenectady County at 81%, but each county has multiple hospitals.
The percentages are self-reported daily by the hospitals.