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Vaccine mandate pushing some to leave health care jobs

OBSERVER File Photo Six employees at the WCA Home have said that Oct. 7 will be their last day at the facility.

A staffing crisis already staking a claim in Chautauqua County may go from bad to worse for some health care facilities due to New York state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Lisa Haglund estimates between 70 and 100 unvaccinated workers at Heritage Ministries may end up quitting at locations across Chautauqua County before a state-imposed deadline. That’s about 10% of the Heritage workforce, said the president and CEO of the nonprofit organization that offers rehabilitation, skilled nursing, assisted living and long-term care options at several facilities.

“We’re all in this trial together,” Haglund said of the mandate’s potential impact on staffing. “We’re at a point of losing a portion of our staff.”

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August mandated that all health care workers get their first dose of the vaccine by Sept. 27. All other health care facilities — including diagnostic and treatment centers, home health agencies, long-term home health care programs, school-based clinics and hospice care programs — must have workers vaccinated by Oct. 7.

A federal judge on Tuesday did temporarily block New York from enforcing the mandate after a lawsuit was filed by a group of 17 health professionals who said their Constitutional rights were violated because the mandate disallowed religious exemptions.

Meanwhile, Haglund said Heritage has been monitoring its staffing situation regularly and already has had to reduce admissions in order to ensure proper care for its current residents.

“We’re thankful we’re not at the point of evacuating. We’re keeping an eye on admissions daily,” she said in an interview Tuesday, noting that Heritage has been focusing on recruitment from nurses and aides to housekeeping.

Fredonia’s WCA Home on Temple Street announced last week that it was bracing for the loss of almost one-third of its staff due to the state’s vaccine requirement. The facility said six unvaccinated employees have served notice that they plan to leave.

“With no other choice, we have begun the process of preparing discharge plans for half of our population,” said Christine Davis Mantai, president of the WCA Home board of directors. “This is painful and heartbreaking to them and us. We are working with the county Office for the Aging and the State (Department of Health) to conduct this surgery as efficiently as possible and in accordance with all laws protecting the elderly in these situations. For this reason, we decided to alert our families and seek other placements for them in other facilities as soon as we knew the impact of the vaccine mandate on our staff.”

Nick Ferreri, owner of The Tanglewood Group, said in a letter released by state Sen. George Borrello that employees who quit will leave behind an “ominous situation of grossly under-staffed facilities for those who remain employed.”

“So ominous,” Ferreri added, “that I believe it will be extraordinarily difficult to keep them resilient enough to carry on. One hundred memory-impaired, dependent residents and another 130 elderly residents, many of whom have no family and no options, will need someone to care for them. Already at this point, skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) are refusing to accept new admissions, and other assisted living facilities are discharging residents, in anticipation of the impending deadline.”

Making the situation worse for nursing homes, Haglund said, is that the state has cut its Medicaid reimbursement payments. The bulk of care received by nursing home residents in New York is paid for by Medicaid. In addition, she said Heritage has not received its funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for mandated COVID testing.

“New York state continues to cut funding for our seniors,” Haglund said. She likened the cuts to reimbursement payments, lack of FEMA funds and the need to hire more employees at higher wages to keep them around as the state “requiring us to fly a plane while building it, and they haven’t even given us the right tools.”

She also alluded to a “trifecta” impacting operation: the pandemic, a staffing shortage that had already existed and government regulations that will lead to more staffing problems.

At Lutheran Jamestown, some employees who are not vaccinated have signaled their intention to leave due to the mandate. Tom Holt, Lutheran president and CEO, said the organization will continue to promote the vaccine to its workers. He noted that, like elsewhere, there are employees who have “dug in” and will refuse to get a COVID shot and others in the health care field who are likely “holding out hope” that the mandate will be lifted.

Holt would not estimate how many employees he thinks may leave before the deadline.

As in the past, Holt did praise employees for their effort during the pandemic. “They’ve done one whale of a job,” he said. “They’ve been through so much and worked so hard.”

He said he was “100% supportive of the vaccine” and that Lutheran was fully committed to providing a safe place for its residents. He said Lutheran and other organizations have written to the state’s health commissioner encouraging officials not to take a statewide approach to a vaccine policy and instead take it region-by-region.

UPMC Chautauqua, the largest hospital provider in the county, was asked if the mandate has had an impact on staffing. In response, a hospital spokeswoman said, “We’re committed to giving our staff every available opportunity to get vaccinated before the deadline by offering convenient, on-site COVID-19 vaccination clinics, and we are focused on providing education about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Getting vaccinated is a key step in reducing the spread of COVID-19.”

In the north county, Chautauqua Nursing & Rehabilitation Center has been advertising for positions that include registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants and housekeeping. The Dunkirk facility is also offering sign-on bonuses.

HOSPITALIZATIONS TOP 30

The number of people admitted in local hospitals who have tested positive for COVID-19 continues to rise. The Chautauqua County Department of Health on Tuesday reported 31 hospitalizations, a bump of four from the weekend and 19 in the last seven days.

The number represents those in Chautauqua County hospitals diagnosed with COVID-19, regardless of residency. Not since the beginning of the year has the COVID hospitalization rate been over 30 people.

The health department also recorded 49 new virus cases, from information collected Monday. Of those, 22 came from the Jamestown zip code along with five in Fredonia and three each in Dunkirk and Lakewood.

There are currently 374 active cases of the virus in the county, 868 people in quarantine and a seven-day positivity rate of 10%. There have been 10,806 total cases to date and 10,265 recoveries and 167 virus-related deaths.

Since Aug. 1 there have been 1,462 new cases, with 54% of them involving people not vaccinated, 16% fully vaccinated, 7% partially vaccinated and 23% whose vaccination status was not known.

More than 62% of the county’s population over the age of 12 has received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine while 56.6% have been fully vaccinated.

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