SARANAC LAKE — New York’s vaccine mandate went into effect on Monday and seven Adirondack Health employees either resigned or were fired.
The state Department of Health issued new regulations earlier this month requiring all hospital and nursing home workers in New York state to receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Monday, while staff in at-home care, hospice, and adult care facilities have to receive one dose by Oct. 7. Before the vaccine mandate went into effect Monday, Adirondack Health employees had a 95% vaccination rate.
Fewer than 30 employees across all Adirondack Health facilities, including Mercy Living Center in Tupper Lake, remained unvaccinated when the mandate took effect, Adirondack Health Communications Director Matt Scollin said Monday. Seven of those employees left the health network Monday, either through resignation or termination. Four of those seven employees worked at Mercy.
The state Department of Labor clarified on Saturday that unvaccinated workers are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits without a doctor-approved request for medical accommodation.
Scollin said the majority of Adirondack Health’s unvaccinated employees are claiming a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine, and he said the hospital is trying to accommodate those individuals with remote work or extended leaves of absence. Individuals claiming religious exemption can keep working until at least Oct. 12, when federal courts will determine if the vaccine mandate will account for religious exemptions.
Scollin said that because the active mandate is only hours old, conversations with some unvaccinated employees are ongoing.
“The moving pieces are still moving,” he said.
On Sept. 8, a few dozen people, including some Adirondack Health employees and their families, rallied outside of Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake to protest the vaccine mandate. Many expressed their concerns over losing work and their concerns about getting the vaccine. Since the mandate was issued, Scollin said 42 previously unvaccinated employees went to get their first dose.
As of Sept. 21, 14% of hospital workers in the North Country were unvaccinated, with 8% unvaccinated in Essex County and 9% in Franklin County, according to the state Department of Health.
Gov. Kathy Hochul released a plan on Saturday to address anticipated statewide staffing shortages in the healthcare industry due to the expected loss of unvaccinated employees. The governor said she plans to declare a state of emergency, should health care facilities need to fill workforce gaps with health care workers from other states and countries, recently graduated or retired health care workers or, if necessary, medically-trained members of the National Guard.
Scollin said that staffing shortages at Adirondack Health probably won’t be as severe as in other health care facilities across New York, thanks to the hospital’s 95% vaccination rate prior to Monday. But Scollin also said it would be “irresponsible” for any health care facility to not be concerned about potential shortages caused by employees who do not adhere to the mandate. He said that Adirondack Health has been in “worst-case scenario” planning mode since the onset of COVID-19, so he believes that any shortages that do crop up at the hospital will be dealt with as needed.
Right now, Scollin attributes the majority of vacant positions at Adirondack Health to statewide and national shortages from the pandemic, with a small portion of the vacant jobs posted in anticipation of terminations and resignations from employees who chose to remain unvaccinated.
Because of their worst-case planning style at Adirondack Health, Scollin said “there were no real surprises (Monday).”
He said they have engaged with employees about the vaccine mandate for some time through group communications and department meetings.