North country health care workers make voices heard on state vaccine mandate, want public to know they aren't "anti-vaxxers"

Sep. 19—WATERTOWN — With the Sept. 27 deadline looming for the New York mandate that all health care workers, including staff at hospitals and long-term care facilities, be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, some health care workers face a difficult decision.

Should they decide not to receive at least the first dose of one of the three available coronavirus vaccines before the state's deadline, health care workers risk the loss of their livelihoods and the careers they've worked to build.

Giving voice to their concerns and displeasure with the mandate, tri-county health care workers have been protesting this week and signing on to petitions.

On Wednesday, protesters gathered in Potsdam, and a Watertown protest organized by Samaritan Health workers, like the one that occurred outside of the hospital last week, took place on Public Square Saturday afternoon, coinciding with protests in other cities, including Syracuse.

Jenelle S. Stine, a registered nurse with Samaritan, has retained the position for about five years and said that although nursing means the world to her, she is willing to walk away from it until there is more concrete data about the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines she and her colleagues have been mandated to receive.

"Until the vaccines are studied in a more complex, traditional setting that scientists and the FDA normally use, I think the 'warp speed' studies should be focused on how to use safe, traditional medications to treat early diagnosed illness of COVID to build natural immunity to prevent hospitalizations and deaths," she said.

Adding that there is nothing wrong with how staff have been managing with screens and personal protective equipment, or PPE, so far through the pandemic, if the mandate goes through and health care systems lose nurses and other staff, she predicts it will have a devastating impact on the patients that will need health care.

"[...]Whether it's from the uptick of COVID or admissions for patients with chronic disease processes, this will be a lose situation for all," Mrs. Stine said. "I commend those who got vaccinated and contributed to this research; I personally have personal health issues that made me opt to not take a risk with a new vaccine."

From her perspective, the risks of the vaccines aren't worth the benefits. Everyone, she said, is ultimately accountable for preventing the transmission of the virus and being diligent with preventative measures.

On Aug. 16, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that all health care workers in New York state would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The requirement applied to staff at all hospitals and long-term care facilities like nursing homes and congregate care settings.

Religious and medical exemptions were both initially included in the order, but religious exemptions were removed through emergency regulations approved by the state's Public Health and Health Planning Council on Aug. 26.

With deadline to receive at least one dose by Sept. 27 comes the understanding that if health care workers do not comply and do not have a recognized medical exemption, they will be relieved of their positions.

A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked the state from forcing health care workers to be vaccinated after a group of 17 health care workers sued, saying their constitutional rights were violated due to the fact that the mandate had disallowed religious exemptions.

"It's nice to know that there are other people that are against this, that they're willing to fight," Mrs. Stine said. "They don't think it's right either."

The judge gave the state until Wednesday to respond to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Utica. If the state opposes the request for a preliminary court order blocking the mandate, which it likely will, an oral hearing will be held Sept. 28.

According to a handout from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, in various stages of vaccine development and manufacturing, some of the COVID-19 vaccines used cells originally isolated from fetal tissue, some of which were originally derived from an aborted fetus.

The fetal cell lines being used to produce some of the potential COVID-19 vaccines are from two sources: a kidney cell line that was isolated from a fetus in 1973, and a retinal cell line that was isolated from an aborted fetus in 1985.

Abortions from which fetal cells were obtained were elective and were not done for the purpose of vaccine development, and any vaccine that relies on these historic cell lines will not require nor solicit new abortions, according to the handout.

Some bioethics groups and religious institutions, including the Vatican, generally oppose the use of aborted fetal cells in the development or manufacturing of vaccines but have said that, given the nature of the pandemic, people may ethically receive these vaccines when there are no alternatives.

Michelle L. Laverghetta, who has been in her current position for over six years as a housekeeper with Samaritan Summit Village and loves what she does, said those she has spoken with all say the same thing: they're being punished for not obeying something they don't believe in and will eventually be fired if they refuse the shots.

Health care facilities may take large hits as they lose staff to the mandate, which could very well negatively impact patient care.

"People have rights and when they are threatened, they fight back," Ms. Laverghetta said. "It's in the Constitution — it's called freedom."

A week from Monday, health care staffing could drastically change due to the mandate. Though some health care workers do not agree with the mandate, the hope in the north country is there will not be a major impact on health systems or services.

According to Leslie M. DiStefano, director of communication and public relations for Samaritan, the health care system doesn't have a number on formal resignations at this time, but is estimating between 50 to 100 team members will choose to resign rather than get vaccinated.

The entire health system is at about 80% vaccination, according to Ms. DiStefano.

"Even losing one caregiver, one team member, is detrimental to what we do," she said. "There's no way that we could operate in the same way knowing that there already is a national and a local workforce shortage. And now you have more people leaving the organization."

While she acknowledged that this could mean things like longer wait times, appointments being scheduled further out, and incoming calls not answered as quickly, Ms. DiStefano said at this point, there's no intention to reduce or close any Samaritan services. She added that patient volumes have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

As previously reported by the Times this week, three of the five departments at the Lewis County Health System that were in danger of being "paused" due to staff loss from resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine, like the maternity department, have been moved off the watch list.

The health system-wide vaccination rate was 83% as of Thursday afternoon, according to Chief Executive Officer Gerald R. Cayer.The total number of resignations so far is 43, with about 70% being clinical staff.

Mr. Cayer confirmed that he and his team have been working internally to re-position staff so services have adequate coverage while "also aggressively working with outside agencies to help fill positions that will be vacant on the 28th."

Jake Hollis, a respiratory therapist with the Lewis County Health System, said he has put 15 years into health care and has never felt as low as he does right now due to the impending mandate and the approaching loss of his beloved job over a vaccine he does not wish to receive.

"I love what I do. It's not a job, it's a passion, and this state is about to take that away from me because I don't feel comfortable with a medication that we don't know the long-term effects of," he said. "It's my body, my choice, except for this."

Mr. Hollis stressed that he and his fellow health care workers who are unhappy with the vaccine mandate, are not "anti-vax." He said he has all of the vaccines previously required of him and said he would receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines 10 years down the line once it is known if there are any long-term effects.

"It's just the fact that this one is so new and as health care providers we are supposed to question it," he said. "We have seen medications come on the market and be taken off a month and years later because of adverse or long-term effects."

He said he feels brokenhearted right know, knowing that something he loves so much could soon be taken from him.

Ben E. Hull, who has served as the director of the Center for Cancer Care at Canton-Potsdam Hospital for the last four years, turned in his letter of resignation earlier this month in direct response to the state Department of Health's removal of religious exemptions to the health care worker mandate.

He said the state's refusal to acknowledge religious exemptions was "a slap in the face to those of faith who serve in health care."

"The line for me was when it became a religious liberty issue," Mr. Hull said. "Other people who are working in health care and in the community may not totally agree with where that line is or ought to be. I think what's important is that people do what they believe is right."

Mr. Hull acknowledged that his decision to resign over this policy may seem extreme in light of the fact that he himself is fully vaccinated. He wrote in a letter sent out to various outlets that it is no more extreme than forcing health care facilities to terminate employees for adhering to their sincerely held religious convictions.

"The very same people who have selflessly served our community on the front lines of a pandemic response for 18 months will be unceremoniously kicked to the curb," Mr. Hull wrote. "If the state chooses to persist in this egregious violation of rights of conscience, our local health care system will be severely weakened by the end of September."

His last day in his role at CPH will be Friday, right before the mandate is set to take effect the following Monday.

As for the temporary halt and legal action against the vaccination mandate, Mr. Hull said it is heartening, but it certainly is not a done deal.

"I think it's so important for people to take a stand in this arena," he said. "In the midst of an already existing staffing crisis that health care facilities are experiencing across the country and in the state, I think what a lot of people are being made aware of as this policy is making the rounds in the news is: Any essential worker working in health care being forced out of their job for these reasons is too many."

If, for example, he said, someone's family member calls 911 with chest pain in a few weeks and is told an ambulance is not coming, it will be too late to speak up about the mandate.Emergency medical service managers , he added, are at a loss for how they are expected to respond to emergencies without their staff and volunteers.

"These heroes of our community will be barred from showing up to save our loved-ones' lives because they're unvaccinated," he said. "Is that worth it? I don't think it is."