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Central New York hospitals are closely watching another legal battle over New York’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, which has required any professionals dealing with patients to be fully vaccinated after the mandate went into effect under then Governor Andrew Cuomo in September of 2021.
Onondaga County Supreme Court Justice Gerard Neri ruled that the state overstepped its legal powers, saying that the state’s mandate is now “null, void and of no effect.”
Derrick Hogan, an attorney with Tully Rinckey, said that as of this moment, it means hospitals and other facilities do not have the legal ground to deny employment to someone who is not vaccinated – even though the NYSDOH has filed a notice of appeal.
“Whether its a company or facility or an institution, they need to comply with that rule,” said Hogan.
Kevin Prosser, a spokesperson for Oneida Health Hospital, said that they would consider reopening the door to unvaccinated staff, pointing to a widespread nursing shortage. For the time being, however, they have not changed their policies – they are waiting to see how the appeals process turns out, and Oneida is also beholden to the federal CMS vaccine mandate for healthcare workers that was recently held up by the Supreme Court of the United States.
“The New York State vaccine mandate reduced the workforce for healthcare workers by about 34,000 across the state,” said Prosser, “the issue that we’re having, as many are, is staffing. Anytime you reduce the pool of eligible candidates, it hurts your ability to recruit.”
The staffing crisis in Central New York has constantly left hospitals with few if any beds available at certain times, with a spillover effect on ambulance crews forced to wait for long periods of time to offload patients. Still – experts and members of the American Nurse’s Association have pointed to burnout and low pay as the primary reasons for the current shortage, one that was predicted by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2017, well before the pandemic.
Oneida Health lost about 30 staff members who refused to get the vaccine, proven to be safe and effective, out of about 1,000 full time workers.
According to data from Fierce Healthcare, Crouse Hospital terminated 45 of its 3,100 employees, Upstate University Hospital terminated 113 of its 6,600 employees and St. Joseph’s Health terminated 78 of its 3,810 employees for not meeting the state’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement.
This is a loss of 1.3 percent, 1.7 percent and 2.04 percent of staff, respectively.
Alyssa Megerell is one of them; she was an ICU nurse at Crouse who chose not to take the vaccine, now working remotely for a bank. It’s a job she says she enjoys; but she misses nursing, and is hoping Judge Neri’s decision is the beginning of the end of the mandate.
“A lot of people lost their jobs, really, in my opinion for no reason,” said Megerell.
CDC data over whelmingly shows that the vaccines available are safe and effective at preventing severe illness and death; so far, 667 million doses have been administered, and adverse side effects are rare. New York State data shows that since May of 2021, the rate of unvaccinated people hospitalized with COVID-19 has consistently, week over week, been over 10 times the rate of fully vaccinated people.
CDC data shows that people fully vaccinated with an updated booster are 12.7 times less likely to die of COVID-19 than those unvaccinated.
However, Governor Kathy Hochul has defended the vaccine mandate based on keeping patients safe from transmission; data shows that, especially against later variants, the vaccine is not effective in preventing transmission from person to person once someone is already infected.
Judge Neri’s ruling referenced this argument directly, highlighting that the state conceded that “the COVID-19 shots do not prevent transmission.”
Governor Hochul said they are exploring legal avenues, with the state DOH filing a notice of appeal Tuesday.