Health systems lose workers with no religious exemption to vaccine rule

At midnight on Tuesday, health care workers across New York who had a religious exemption will have to show proof of at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or face getting suspended and fired.

A group of workers sued to stop the mandate for religious exemptions, but a federal appeals panel says their excuse can no longer stand.

If you’re going to the hospital, be patient. That’s the message from St. Peter’s Health Partners as the system stands to lose more employees during an ongoing staffing shortage.

“Our numbers have spiked in the last 72 hours,” explained Dr. Steven Hanks, St. Peter’s Health Partners Chief Clinical Officer. “It’s just an incredible increase in a 72-hour period.”

In that time, St. Peter’s went from treating about 50 COVID-19 patients to treating 80.

Dr. Hanks says that means the health system wants to make sure their workers are vaccinated. But they can’t afford to lose more workers.

“I understand why the state made the decision they made, and yet, it is a speed bump that we could’ve done without,” he said.

We reached out to several health systems across the capital region to ask how this affects their care. Albany Med says 40 of their workers will be suspended at midnight and have seven days to get vaccinated or be fired.

“It’s not going to be the same experience that it would be in normal times,” Dr. Hanks said of people’s visits to the hospital. "Having to part with 176 people in the face of the staffing crisis we already have, is just making it that much more challenging."

One hundred seventy-six out of about 11,000 St. Peter’s workers are about to be suspended. Dr. Hanks says the only way an employee could remain unvaccinated is if he or she does not come in contact with any other workers or patients.

He promises the updated rule won’t affect care. But expect to wait longer, he says.

“If you’re admitted, you may spend a long time in the emergency department,” he said.

Dr. Hanks says while their care may stay the same, staffing shortages can create a domino effect from smaller facilities the hospital relies on to take patients after they’re discharged, such as rehabilitation facilities. If those are backed up by staffing issues, it’s harder to move patients out of the hospital.

“If you’re ready to be discharged, and you’re ready to go to post-acute care services, either a nursing home or a rehab facility, you may be waiting in the hospital a longer time than ordinarily would be the case,” Dr. Hanks said.

St. Peter’s workers who had a religious exemption will be suspended without pay and must show proof of vaccination by Jan. 8 or be fired Jan. 9.