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Time is up for unvaccinated health care workers; local officials remain hopeful

University of Rochester
Emergency room nurse Regina Byrd of Rochester, left, receives her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, administered by nurse Amanda Davis, on Dec. 14, 2020, at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, NY.

When New York state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers was announced in August, unvaccinated hospital and nursing home employees were faced with a decision: Get vaccinated or lose your job. At the deadline, a few employees who once stood strong in their fight for free will, are now choosing the vaccine.

Devante Ridgeway is one of hundreds of University of Rochester Medical Center employees who got vaccinated just days shy of the state’s deadline. The environmental services worker said he would have remained unvaccinated had he found other employment.

“This is the longest I've ever kept a job and not for nothing; I worked hard to keep this job,” Ridgeway said. “I was told that my job might be in jeopardy If I don't get the shot. I don’t think that’s fair at all.”

Ridgeway, who has been employed by URMC for three years, said he is concerned to see some of his co-workers and other staff leave after decades of employment.

“The only thing I can tell people is you got to do what’s best for you,” he said. “I made the decision based on I live by myself and I didn’t have no other income besides the hospital.”

In a news conference Monday, Strong Memorial Hospital’s chief operating officer, Kathy Parrinello, reported that as of Monday morning, 95.5% of staff and physicians were vaccinated, and another 2% had approved exemptions who will be accommodated with weekly testing. In total, 97.5% percent of URMC staff will continue to work after the mandate goes into effect at the end of Monday.

Unvaccinated employees were able to complete Monday's; work shift, but will not be able to return after midnight.

Parrinello said if unvaccinated workers change their minds, URMC’s vaccine clinics will be open all week.

“When the reality of not being able to come to work, and work with their colleagues really hits, and people decide to become vaccinated, we want to be here and ready for them,” Parrinello said.

She said the vaccination numbers remain fluid, and the system would have a better idea of how many employees will be returning by end of workday. Despite the outcome, Parrinello said the systems will continue to prioritize patient care.

"People should feel secure if they have an emergency illness and emergency situation requiring health care, they should come to the emergency department," Parrinello said. "We absolutely will be there to take care of them."

In a statement released on Monday, Rochester Regional Health said it was nearing a 99% vaccination rate, which includes all exemptions. The health system said it was “proud” of its employees and that it remains “committed to serving the community.”

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.
Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.