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Hochul prepares for fallout from vaccine mandate court challenges

Gov. Kathy Hochul's office

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for hospital workers has not caused any major crises in the first three days of the requirement, but she says there are still staffing shortages and ongoing court action that create uncertainty.

Hochul said 92% of all hospital workers in the state have received at least one dose of the vaccine. She said vaccination rates for nursing home staff and home health care workers are also rising in anticipation of an Oct. 7 mandate that those workers also get vaccinated or lose their jobs.

Despite that, the governor estimates that hundreds of hospital workers have been laid off or suspended for refusing the vaccine. The state does not keep those numbers. Some hospitals have postponed elective surgeries or temporarily closed down satellite offices.

Hochul added that the outcome of a court case challenging the state’s rule that disallows religious exemptions could cause deeper staffing shortages. Some health care facilities have allowed workers seeking the exemption to remain on staff while the court challenge is heard; legal arguments will be heard early in October.

Hochul said thousands of student nurses and other health care workers have been authorized to be deployed, if necessary, through an emergency executive order she issued Monday that waives existing licensing rules.

“We are staffing up and we are getting ready for the possibility of more people who have been granted this leeway from their employers,” Hochul said. “Some people have been furloughed pending the outcome.”

So far, the state has not had to deploy National Guard troops or import workers from other countries to ease the staffing shortage.

Hochul also addressed a little-known provision in the emergency order that temporarily prevents insurance companies from challenging claims submitted by hospitals. A memo from Kenneth Raske, head of the Greater New York Hospital Association, takes credit for the provision.

In the memo -- obtained by the fiscal watchdog group the Empire Center -- Raske wrote that his group “strongly advocated for those suspensions and thanks the Governor for her decisive action on them.”

Hochul said she enacted the ban to free up nurses and other staff to focus more on direct patient care.

“There are so many licensed health care professionals, including doctors, and nurses and others, who spend a lot of time having to do this paperwork,” Hochul said. “When, in fact, if there is a crisis, they could be deployed by their hospital to actually be on the floor and help people.”

Hochul also commented on discrepancies, first reported in the Albany Times Union, between vaccine mandates for hospital workers and for health care workers in the state’s mental health care facilities and prisons. Workers in the state Office of Mental Health and Department of Corrections have the option of weekly testing instead of getting vaccinated.

Hochul said those agencies are not under the control of the state Health Department, which issued the mandates for the hospital workers, but she said she’s working through the legal details to discontinue the testing option at the other state agencies.

“They need to be vaccinated,” said Hochul. “That is going to happen.”

Hochul said she’ll be making an announcement on changing those rules shortly.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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