MVHS outlines COVID-19 vaccine mandate impact on health system

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Among area hospitals impacted this week by state regulations calling for hospital and other healthcare employees to be vaccinated, the Mohawk Valley Health System provided impact detials — 180 employees now on unpaid administrative leave until Oct. 9 — at a Tuesday news conference.

This, after thousands of health care workers in New York were tasked by a state mandated Monday deadline to either get one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or lose their jobs.

Workers at hospitals and nursing homes had until Monday to get their first vaccine dose under the new requirement, sparking fears among administrators that holdouts would create dramatic staff shortages.

Gov. Kathy Hochul released figures late Monday showing vaccination rates rising among the state’s 450,000 hospital workers and for other healthcare workers. The figures were released as she signed an executive order providing her with expanded powers to alleviate staff shortages.

By Monday evening, 92% of nursing home staff received at least one vaccine dose. And preliminary data showed 92% of hospital staff receiving at least one dose of vaccine, the governor said.

However, despite the work to vaccinate, impacts of those opting out were felt on Tuesday.

“As a healthcare organization, MVHS supports vaccines for COVID as a significant safety tool for our employees, our patients and our community,” said Darlene Stromstad, FACHE, president/CEO of MVHS in a statement. “However, we also recognize that our employees have the freedom to choose whether or not to get the vaccine. As a result of the mandate, 180 employees have separated from MVHS which brings our vacancy rate to 17.5%. Prior to the mandate, our vacancy rate was already 13.7%.”

Stromstad said she was optimistic about hospital system staff efforts to pull together and continue to be vaccinated in recent weeks.

Over the weekend, there were about 120 staff members who received last minute vaccines.

She added that six weeks ago the MVHS employee vaccination rate was about 70%; and on Tuesday more than 95% of MVHS employees were in compliance with the mandate.

In a statement detailing forward actions, it was noted, “MVHS is continuing to encourage employees who have not been vaccinated to reconsider getting a vaccine. Employees who have not been vaccinated have been placed on an unpaid leave of absence as of today, Sept. 28, 2021, until Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. If they return with a first vaccination dose by Saturday, Oct. 9, they will maintain their position and seniority. If an employee does not show proof of a vaccination by Saturday, October 9, they will be separated from employment. Their health benefits will continue until the end of the month.”

Stromstad added that staff that separate will not be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Work coverage at MVHS

A plan of operation for all services at MVHS has been developed in light of employee losses.

Stromstad said that currently, MVHS has not requested any state personnel or National Guard members (a resource provided by New York State) to cover duties left vacant.

The hospital is still implementing a recently instituted crisis pay program to cover extra employee shifts and overtime work which is running to the tune of $770,000 every two weeks, she said.

“This comes at a time when our industry has struggled with workforce issues,” Stromstad said.

If additional staff are lost after an Oct. 12 deadline when religious exemptions will be decided by the state, that could impact another 100 MVHS staff members who have submitted such exemption requests.

Stromstad said that with all of the impacts, if the amount of staff are lost permanently, “It will take years to increase our workforce.”

But, Stromstad said she knows things will get better.

Even if that means hospitals look at new operating models such as using Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) for some services, and looking at other options.

Staffing impacts at MVHS

In provided details, here is what the community should know related to MVHS services going forward:

• Hospital services at both campuses (St. Elizabeth and Faxton-St. Luke’s) will continue operating – Medical Surgical, Intensive Care, Intermediate Care and Maternity units as well as Emergency Departments (ED). However, MVHS has been and expects to continue to experience higher-than-average volumes in the EDs so patients may experience longer wait times for routine care. MVHS continues to work with other regional hospitals to address capacity issues as they arise.

• Elective surgery: Surgeries will continue at both hospitals, with some limited capacity.

Ancillary services for hospital patients. Patients and patient rooms/areas are the key priorities for ancillary services such as food and nutrition and housekeeping. Other, non-clinical areas will experience delays and decrease level of services. For example, deli services in the cafeteria have been paused so those workers can provide support and assistance in making and delivering food to patients.

• Outpatient imaging services (X-ray, CT scan, etc.): All sites will continue running, however there may be longer waiting times for some diagnostic testing due to reduced capacity.

• Sleep Center. At this time, the office will remain open to provide care and services to already established patients, but will not be able to accept new patients.

• Laboratories: Services at one lab site in the community, 86 Genesee Street, will be temporarily paused. Additionally, hours are being reduced at the lab located at the St. Elizabeth Campus; the new hours are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

• Dialysis: All current patients will continue their treatment, but services will be consolidated at specific locations with some different hours. Impacted patients have been notified.

• Transportation: There may be some delays in and the inability to transport patients through Senior Network Health.

• Long-Term Care: The MVHS Rehabilitation and Nursing Center is not accepting new residents at this time.

Perspective

In talking with staff, Stromstad said reasons presented to her by staff unwilling to be vaccinated included reasons of vaccine safety and healthcare privacy concerns.

In August, the New York State Nurses Association issued the following statement regarding the Sept. 27 vaccine deadline for healthcare workers:

“With the sharp increase in primarily unvaccinated patients entering hospitals around the state, we understand more must be done to keep our communities safe. In conjunction with the vaccine mandate, the Department of Health (DOH) must declare COVID-19 a public health emergency and implement the HERO Act to reduce the strain on healthcare. In addition to protecting New Yorkers through vaccination, more must be done to prepare our hospitals for another COVID surge. The DOH must take a stronger role in ensuring healthcare facilities meet health and safety protocols that fully recognize airborne transmission, and are safely staffed with enough frontline healthcare workers, especially ICU nurses. They must also ensure hospitals have adequate and accessible Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplies. They should no longer be in a conservation mindset when it comes to PPE.

“Overall, we are seeing a crisis in hospital emergency departments that indicates a general lack of preparedness. The DOH should listen to the frontline this time not just hospital CEO’s. Our healthcare workers are exhausted and traumatized. Their voices should be heard - not denied or characterized as vectors of infection- which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. When healthcare workers document what they are experiencing they must be believed. Hospitals must also ensure that new mandates do not contribute to already problematic staffing shortages. We do not want a situation where patient care is compromised because the pool of nurses and other healthcare workers continues to shrink.

“It is our hope that by the time this mandate is in effect, that the vaccines have gained full FDA approval.”

Rome Health

Elsewhere in the region, the state vaccination mandate impacted other hospitals such as Rome Health.

There, Chief Operating Officer Ryan Thompson said that as of Tuesday, between 95 and 97% of hospital staff were fully vaccinated and that there was “a pathway back” for unvaccinated staff who wished to return after vaccination.

An exact number of employees that left because of the mandate was not available. Thompson cited healthcare privacy as a concern to not release information that would allow employees to be reasonably identified via their vaccination status — such as being a known hospital employee and suddenly not being at work. Thompson added the employees that left were counseled one on one and provided as much information about the vaccine as possible.

State action

Monday night, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order to alleviate potential staffing shortages in hospitals and other health care facilities statewide.

Hochul directed a 24/7 Operations Center, led by the New York State Department of Health, to constantly monitor staffing operations and trends statewide, provide guidance to healthcare facilities and help troubleshoot acute situations with providers as necessary.

“The only way we can move past this pandemic is to ensure that everyone eligible is vaccinated, and that includes those who are taking care of our vulnerable family members and loved ones,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement. “On Saturday I released a comprehensive plan in advance of the deadline for the vaccine mandate that keeps New Yorkers safe, and tonight I am adding even more provisions to take bold action to alleviate potential staffing shortages. To monitor developments on the ground, I am also directing an around-the-clock operations center to assist local partners and troubleshoot staffing issues in real time.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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