The day after New York State’s vaccine mandate for health care workers took effect, the University of Rochester Medical Center said 96 percent of employees in UR Medicine hospitals had taken at least one dose of COVID vaccine, and an additional 3 percent have approved exemptions that enable them to continue working if they undergo weekly COVID testing.
Staff Vaccination Rates
UR Medicine employs just over 21,000 people across its six hospitals and associated clinics regulated under Article 28 of the state’s public health law. The vaccine mandate applies to all UR Medicine employees who work in these facilities, including administrative and support staff not directly involved in providing patient care. More than 20,000 are vaccinated, a large majority of whom chose vaccination before the mandate was announced. Fewer than 300 employees across the six hospitals have resigned because of the mandate, including those who chose to leave before it took effect.
Last week, UR Medicine announced measures being taken to address longstanding staff shortages, along with contingency plans for best-case and worst-case scenarios of increased vacancies caused by the mandate. Steven I. Goldstein, senior vice president of the University of Rochester Medical Center who oversees UR Medicine regional hospitals, and also serves as president and CEO of Strong Memorial and Highland hospitals in Rochester, said that 99 percent of employees continuing to work under the mandate is better than expected. However, he said, ongoing staff shortages in hospitals and nursing homes present challenges as the system works to maintain services.
“We are pleased that such a high percentage of UR Medicine employees have chosen vaccination, which protects them individually against serious COVID illness, while collectively protecting our patients, families, and communities,” Goldstein said. “We continue to encourage everyone who is eligible to become vaccinated, including staff members who currently have a religious exemption or who recently resigned and could be welcomed back.”
Nearly 95 percent of the more than 600 approved exemptions are for religious reasons. Under guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship.” The One UR Medicine accommodation is to require weekly COVID testing for employees with approved exemptions, along with daily symptom tracking and PPE guidelines followed by all employees to prevent the spread of COVID and other diseases.
The future of employees working with a religious exemption is in question pending legal action, including an anticipated ruling on Oct. 12 by U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd on whether New York State can prevent hospitals from providing the religious exemption. In addition, 24 nursing homes in the Finger Lakes region have put a pause on accepting new patients, causing a backlog of patients in UR Medicine hospitals who are medically stable and can be released to a long-term care facility when space is available.
Goldstein said both of those factors make it difficult for UR Medicine hospitals to maintain non-essential services at the level patients expect and deserve. Patients should continue to expect longer wait times for routine appointments, some employees are being asked to take on new responsibilities, and temporary bed closures are possible.
However, Goldstein emphasized that emergency services and critical care will continue across the UR Medicine system despite staffing challenges.
“As (URMC Chief Medical Officer) Dr. Mike Apostolakos said last week, UR Medicine hospitals remain open for business and ready to provide essential care for patients,” Goldstein said. “We encourage every member of the public to get vaccinated against COVID, and please don’t put off seeking medical care when you need it.”