Hundreds of Capital Region healthcare workers miss vaccine deadline

Albany Medical Center is shown in February 2021. The facility is facing the loss of a few hundred unvaccinated employees starting Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Albany Medical Center is shown in February 2021. The facility is facing the loss of a few hundred unvaccinated employees starting Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

ALBANY — Hundreds of Capital Region health care workers missed the Monday deadline to get vaccinated against COVID or get fired, but what impact this will have is not immediately clear.

Area hospitals and nursing homes, all of them short on personnel even before the state-imposed ultimatum took effect, say they don’t know how yet many of their workers will actually hold firm and refuse the vaccine, and how that will affect operations at the facilities.

Even the number of people to be suspended or fired was unclear Monday: One hospital said 43 employees were unvaccinated as of midafternoon, then emailed an update a moment later — one more worker had taken the jab. By 8 p.m., they were down to 36.

The largest hospital and the largest health care system in the region — Albany Medical Center and St. Peter’s Health Partners — both said some non-urgent procedures might be postponed and suspended if enough of their employees departed.

Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed the Sept. 27 deadline. His successor, Gov. Kathy Hochul, maintained and even embraced the ultimatum to get at least the first shot.

On Saturday, she urged unvaccinated health care workers to get vaccinated, and announced a contingency plan to avert a crisis if a large number of these workers refused. 

The plan included allowing recent graduates, retirees and health care professionals from other states and countries to provide care; deploying medically trained members of the National Guard; and requesting federal disaster medical assistance teams.

Late Monday morning, Hochul framed the midnight deadline as a means to decrease the spread of a disease that has killed more than 56,000 New Yorkers and increase public confidence in healthcare workers.

At a news conference, she said: “Can’t we just say that that is a basic right that everyone has to know that they’ll be safe when they enter a healthcare facility or you have your elderly parents or grandparents in a nursing home that they will not get sick because of someone who’s charged with their care?”

When Hochul spoke at midday Monday, she said the number of unvaccinated workers who’ll be barred from working was unknown — there appeared to be an increased rate of vaccination during the day.

But on the other side of the equation, she’s pressing the fight in court to eliminate the religious exemption to the vaccine mandate, and she expects to win, which would create another group of health care workers forced to choose between jab and job.

Hospitals and nursing homes knew this day was coming, the governor said, and the state will work with them to address their needs.

Some facilities have already limited elective procedures as a preparation, she noted.

“It is not going to be a perfect situation, but again, it’s preventable,” Hochul said of the healthcare landscape in New York on Tuesday morning.

Here is the situation at some local healthcare facilities, as reported by the facilities to the Daily Gazette on Monday afternoon: 

ELLIS MEDICINE

At Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, the full-time equivalent of about 100 people in 75 departments had not received the shot. They’ll go through a disciplinary process and have a chance to change their minds before being terminated.

The situation is fluid, given that the unvaccinated employees could decide to get vaccinated and the 69 employees who have religious exemptions could lose them. The uncertainty is similar to the surge planning earlier in the pandemic, when Ellis had to be ready for sudden changes in the demand for care.

Contingency options now include consolidating essential services to fewer locations and reducing non-essential services. The ongoing personnel shortage across the state and beyond has led Ellis to offer hiring bonuses, streamline the hiring process and use agency personnel under contract.

All of this increases the stress on the organization’s remaining workers.

“We offer the highest praise to our staff for the sacrifices they continue to make to serve their community,” a spokesman said. “The demands of a global pandemic, and now a widespread staffing shortage, are taxing our colleagues here and elsewhere, and we thank them for their ongoing dedication to our patients.”

GLENDALE HOME

Glendale Home, the nursing facility operated by Schenectady County in Glenville, had five unvaccinated employees out of a workforce of 267, and they are spread across multiple departments, so their departure is not expected to create a crisis.

However, the facility does remain short-staffed. It has hired 11 certified nursing assistants and three licensed practical nurses since July, and is looking to hire more CNAs, LPNs, and registered nurses.

The county has instituted hiring bonuses of $1,500 to $2,000 and will increase shift differentials in 2022 as another  recruiting tool.

ALBANY MEDICAL CENTER

The region’s largest hospital appears to also have one of the largest contingents of unvaccinated employees.

“We are hopeful that the 272 members of our staff who are unvaccinated will become vaccinated for the safety of our community,” a spokeswoman said.

Those who hadn’t gotten the jab by midnight Monday will be suspended without pay for seven days, then fired if they still haven’t gotten their first shot.

Albany Med said there will be practical impacts from this, though it will work to minimize the number of postponed or canceled appointments and surgeries.

“Like most hospitals, Albany Med is experiencing increased wait times due to staffing shortages felt nationwide. We continue to provide safe care and are taking proactive measures to recruit and retain staff, including referral bonuses and rewards for attendance,” the spokeswoman said.

ST. PETER’S

St. Peter’s Health Partners, a system that includes five hospitals and eight nursing homes, said it had just under 400 employees who had neither proven they were vaccinated nor declared their intention to get the shot.

Dr. Thea Dalfino, chief medical officer for SPHP Acute Care, said Monday morning that the organization was continuing to provide those employees with education and support in hopes of changing their minds.

“At the same time, we are assessing the full impact of what will likely be significant staffing vacancies,” Dalfino said. “Patient care is our number one priority. We are looking carefully at numerous options to address gaps to ensure that care is not interrupted. This could result in the temporary suspension of some services including elective surgeries.”

SARATOGA HOSPITAL

Saratoga Hospital issued its own internal vaccine mandate Aug. 9, even before Cuomo’s directive, so the hospital and its staff had a little more time to adjust.

Even so, as of Monday, about 150 of 3,126 were not vaccinated. About half of the 150 have received religious exemptions, and some of the other half are still trickling in with proof of vaccination obtained off-site. Those who do neither will be placed on unpaid administrative leave.

Hospital CEO Angelo Calbone said the hospital has not curtailed any services but may need to, so it can focus on the patients with the most critical needs — because there isn’t a ready supply of replacement workers.

“The struggle to sustain proper staffing levels has increased for many reasons,” Calbone said. “Some employees who have dealt with long hours and pressure have simply chosen this time to retire or leave for other, less stressful fields. A small percentage have left because of requirements that healthcare employees be vaccinated.”

The hospital has stepped up its recruiting efforts; is paying bonuses to new employees and bonuses to existing employees who refer them; has raised some pay grades; and will be reaching out directly to nursing students graduating in December.

NATHAN LITTAUER

Nathan Littauer Hospital and Nursing Home said 36 employees remained unvaccinated as of Monday evening but two of them had recently claimed religious exemption.

The practical impact will be a temporary closure of the Broadalbin and town of Johnstown primary care offices to conserve support staff; both practices will be consolidated into the Mayfield office.

Regardless of the final number, the departures will be noticed, a spokeswoman said.

“The impact of any staff loss is hard-felt by a small hospital and nursing home. We are no exception.”

ST. MARY’S HEALTHCARE

St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam said some of the last holdout employees were getting vaccinated Monday afternoon, and fewer than 30 were expected to still be unvaccinated Tuesday morning.

As a result, administrative planning also was fluid, with potential adjustments in staffing, services and resources as needed, if needed.

The only major impact anticipated Monday was at the urgent care clinic on Route 67 in Charlton — urgent care will be temporarily halted there for a week. It is SMH’s least-utilized urgent care office, so its focus is being changed to primary care, which will be offered alongside urgent care starting Nov. 1.

SMH said it is hopeful that higher starting wages and a new recruiting platform will give it a boost in the continuing recruitment/retainment effort.

SHAKER PLACE

Shaker Place Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, a Colonie nursing home operated by Albany County, said it was looking at the forced departure of five of its 250 employees.

“The loss of any caregiver is tough but we are prepared and continue to recruit new personnel at all levels while retaining our dedicated staff,” Executive Director Larry Slatky said. 

Nursing homes statewide have seen a high infection rate and death toll among residents, who are some of the most-vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, and among staff. Both groups were given priority for vaccination for that reason.

“Over 98% of our staff have received the vaccine and I want to thank each of them for their commitment to our residents throughout the pandemic which has been exceptional,” Slatky said.

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