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Religious exemptions for state health care workers to expire Monday | Public Service News


WATERTOWN — Come Monday, some local health systems could see even more limited workforces as those with previously approved religious exemptions to the state’s vaccination mandate are given limited options: show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, or face termination.

Earlier this fall, a federal appeals court got rid of the temporary restraining order that allowed health care workers to claim religious exemptions and not be vaccinated against COVID-19. Now, the vaccine mandate for all health care workers can be enforced aside from those with valid medical exemptions, according to a letter from the state Department of Health.

“… all covered entities must ensure that covered ‘personnel’ who were previously granted religious exemptions have documentation of either a first dose COVID-19 vaccination or a valid medical exemption,” the letter reads in part.

Carthage Area Hospital terminated unvaccinated workers by the original Sept. 27 vaccination deadline and now boasts a 100% vaccination rate among employees. Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center in Ogdensburg, which shares the same chief executive officer and policies, did the same.

Other area hospitals, including Samaritan Medical Center, the Lewis County and St. Lawrence health systems and River Hospital, were awaiting guidance from the state. When guidance finally came earlier this week, plans were put into place.

Samaritan has been telling employees that if they do not provide proof of vaccination by Monday, they will be placed on administrative leave without pay until Nov. 29. If they still do not provide proof, their employment will end.

This applies to 100 out of 2,700 employees, according to Leslie M. DiStefano, director of communication and public relations at Samaritan. Impact is fairly spread out across departments, but with a nationwide staffing shortage, Mrs. DiStefano said, losing even one employee is devastating at this time.

Even so, Samaritan has a plan in place and has identified the areas that may struggle as a result. In the interim, Mrs. DiStefano said rescheduling of patients and other measures may be needed to get through.

“We’ve had a clinical and non-clinical labor pool through the pandemic and through the shortages that we have faced, kind of flexing up and flexing down where need be,” she said. “We certainly will look at that, but it really could just come to more of a scheduling concern. If we only have X amount of staff to provide a service, we will have to perhaps bring some of our patient count down.”

Mrs. DiStefano made it clear that the decision to terminate unvaccinated workers with previously approved religious exemptions is not a Samaritan mandate but that of New York state. She said the health system is working with staff to make sure it can retain as many caregivers as possible.

Tri-county percentages of hospital workers with completed vaccine series as of Nov. 17, according to the state Department of Health, were 93% for Jefferson, 95% for Lewis, and 96% for St. Lawrence.

According to Mia Ramseier, director of marketing and community relations, the number of employees with religious exemptions at River Hospital is very small, so if they are terminated Monday there should be no disruptions in services and staffing of departments.

The Lewis County Health System has 20 staff members with religious exemptions. CEO Gerald R. Cayer said the system is committed to being compliant with the state orders as they relate to mandatory vaccination and religious exemptions for health care personnel. However, he said, it must be understood that the health system has a legal and moral obligation to provide access to medical care for the community at a time when ambulance diversions are nearly a daily experience and acute beds are not readily available at the regional tertiary centers.

He noted that the criteria for a valid medical exemption to the vaccine mandate is very narrow, with five employees having medical exemptions. At this point, out of the 20 individuals with previously approved religious exemptions, seven of them are in the nursing service.

As always, no matter what happens, the health system’s goal is to make sure it doesn’t have to pause any other services, Mr. Cayer said.

According to Jeremy Slaga, St. Lawrence Health’s senior vice president of administration, a number of previously exempted staff are presently receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. The system does not have a specific number of staff facing termination at this time, he said, though an exact number is expected following the Monday deadline.

“Much like every other health care organization in the state of New York, our present goal is to minimize the number of previously exempt team members who will have to leave the health care profession,” he said.

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