No shots, no deliveries

Lewis County General Hospital puts maternity department on pause over staff shortage from resignations over vaccinations

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LOWVILLE — An upstate New York hospital will stop delivering babies later this month, in part because of employee resignations over a requirement they be vaccinated against COVID-19. Six maternity staff members resigned from Lewis County General Hospital during the past week, worsening an existing staff shortage, in an article first reported by The Watertown Daily Times.

The department has seven other unvaccinated employees who also could decide to leave, hospital officials said.

“The number of resignations received leaves us no choice but to pause delivering babies at Lewis County General Hospital,” Chief Executive Gerald Cayer said at a news conference Friday. “It is my hope that the (state) Department of Health will work with us in pausing the service rather than closing the maternity department.”

Services also may have to be curtailed in five other departments if staff members resign rather than be vaccinated by the state’s Sept. 27 deadline for health care workers, authorities said.

Cayer said 30 people have resigned since the vaccine mandate was announced last month, most of whom held clinical positions like nurses, therapists and technicians. Thirty others have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, he said.

“Essential health services are not at risk because of the mandate,” Cayer said. “The mandate ensures we will have a healthy workforce and we are not responsible for (causing COVID-19) transmission in or out of our facilities.”

Cayer said he does support the vaccination initiative, and the COVID positivity rate in the North Country demonstrates why he and state and federal governments are moving forward with mandates.

“We have five staff in quarantine, five in isolation and have four positive patients,” said Cayer.

The North Country leads New York with a 5.8% positivity rate, according to state statistics, slightly higher than the Central New York region of 5.7% and the Mohawk Valley region positivity rate of 5.4%. The positivity rate in Lewis County was 6%.

Cayer said the vaccination rate for the region is just less than 50% while the rate at the Lewis County General Hospital health system is over 76%.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but our community rate is low,” said Cayer. “The staff here in our health system are not getting exposed here, they’re getting exposed out in the community. If we’re going to commit to our patients, part of that is making sure we’re healthy and don’t put them at risk.”

He said, “Our priority is to create the safest environment possible...If I’m wishy-washy and sending a message that it’s (getting vaccinated) not as important as I think it is,” staff “wouldn’t take the mandate seriously. I don’t want to lose a single member of our team, but some members of our team feel differently and will be leaving.”

And out of necessity, Lewis County General will need to replace staff that resign.

“Right now” since the mandate went into place for Sept. 27, “we had 43 staff come back, and we had 40 staff choose to resign,” Cayer said. “Our overall vaccination rate is 76%, but we still have 142 staff who have not shared with us what they will do. We will obviously have to replace these individuals if they don’t get vaccinated by Sept. 27, unless they get a medical exemption. So far we’ve issued three medical exemptions — one earlier today.”

He said, “We have another 11 who indicated they would pursue an exemption” but nothing has been finalized.

Note: The Associated Press also contributed to this article.

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