As a state-ordered deadline for New York’s hospital workers, including non-clinical staff, to be inoculated against COVID-19 or quit their jobs fell Monday, University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Regional Health officials reported that their employee-vaccination rates were rapidly approaching 100 percent.
The Sept. 27 deadline for the state’s hospital workers to get at least one shot of a COVID vaccine was imposed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo as one of his last official acts. Gov. Kathy Hochul left the mandate in place. The order allows some with religious objection or valid medical reasons to opt out if they agree to weekly COVID tests.
As of yesterday, URMC said 95.5 percent of all staff at Strong Memorial were vaccinated and rates across the system’s hospitals were higher than 90 percent. Including individuals who legitimately opted out brought Strong’s vaccination rate to 97 percent, officials said. In advance of the mandate deadline, URMC said last week that 99 percent of its clinical staff had taken a shot.
RRH similarly reported close to 99 percent compliance systemwide, a figure that also includes legitimately exempt employees who had opted out.
“Rochester Regional Health is proud of all of its employees for their hard work and dedication in keeping the community safe,” the system said in a statement.
Officials of both systems could not immediately provide a breakdown of how rates vary by hospital across their territories. Between them, the two systems run a dozen hospitals and scores of clinics, urgent care centers and other medical facilities in eight counties.
URMC’s network includes Strong Memorial, Highland and Golisano Children’s hospitals in Monroe County, F.F. Thompson Hospital in Ontario County, Jones Memorial Hospital in Allegany County, Noyes Memorial Hospital in Livingston County, and St. James Hospital in Steuben County.
RRH runs Rochester General and Unity hospitals in Monroe County, Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic in Ontario County, United Memorial Medical Center in Genesee County, and Newark-Wayne Community Hospital in Wayne County.
The statewide mandate has spurred an uptick in both area health system worker vaccinations, URMC and RRH report. Between last Thursday and the Monday deadline, URMC saw a 3.5 percentage point increase in the number of vaccinated workers, URMC spokesman Chip Partner says.
Throughout the pandemic, the health systems have struggled with staff shortages. A dearth of workers has sometimes forced them to curtail elective surgeries and temporarily halt or scale back services at some facilities. To boost staffing levels, they have had to rely more on nurses known as travelers who work for outside staffing agencies, a measure that helps maintain services but adds to labor costs
The relatively few health system workers electing to quit rather than be vaccinated is encouraging but will not solve staffing problems, officials say.
“This past year has been a tough one,” says URMC executive vice president Kathy Parrinello. “We’ve seen a number of individuals have to stay home and take care of children. We’ve seen people make decisions to work fewer hours because of things going on at home or in their personal lives. We entered this phase with a 10 to 15 percent vacancy rate.”
Still, she adds, “the fact that so many are getting vaccinated will make the rest of this week and next week easier to manage.”
Like much concerning COVID, vaccine mandates have become a political flash point with many conservatives railing against what they see as an incursion on their personal liberty and moderates and liberals arguing that such mandates are nothing more than a sensible and badly needed public health measure.
As the New York mandate took effect Monday, more than 200 demonstrators including a smattering in hospital scrubs lined sidewalks near Strong Memorial’s Elmwood Avenue entrance to protest the vaccination deadline. Many waved American flags. Some bore homemade signs demanding approval of Ivermectin for COVID treatment. Ivermectin is an anti-parasite medicine used primarily for deworming animals. An overwhelming majority of medical experts says it is ineffective against COVID and harmful to humans if taken in too high of a dose.
According to URMC’s Parrinello, on Monday afternoon, fewer than 300 frontline URMC hospital workers had resigned rather than get a shot and the number was falling as previously unvaccinated employees lined up to get shots.
Officials of both systems say they will rehire any vaccine refusers who change their minds.
“I hope those individuals who are resigning today because they decided not to get vaccinated will change their mind and become vaccinated tomorrow, the next day, next week,” Parrinello says. “We would happily welcome them back.”
While some protestors are health system workers, many, if not most, are not, Parrinello maintains. Such protestors who work for a health system, she says, make for “a tough question. We have talked to many of these individuals. It’s really hard to turn people around when they don’t want to get vaccinated because of the mandate.
“We continue, though, to provide information, let them know how much it can help their family members and loved ones and protect coworkers and patients,” she added. “That’s why we should be doing it. Mandate or not, we should be getting vaccinated because we want to protect our loved ones, we want to protect our patients, we want to protect our coworkers and we want to end this pandemic.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.