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NY will not enforce COVID booster requirement for health care workers

The decision to push back on the Feb. 21 deadline was made to avoid potential staffing issues and allow more time for workers to get boosted.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — With a deadline looming Monday, there was a surprise turnaround on the preceding Friday for health care workers needing to get their COVID booster shot or face being fired.

It was an unusual change in policy that Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state had put into place.

Governor Hochul made headlines on January 10 as she ordered health care workers across the state to be COVID booster vaccinated with the additional shot or they could lose their jobs.

Then Friday afternoon at 2:07, the New York State Department of Health sent out a press release stating, "In order to avoid potential staffing issues and give health care workers more time to get boosted, the state will no longer enforce the booster requirement that will go into effect on February 21.

"The State will reassess in three months whether additional steps need to be taken to increase booster rates among the health care workforce."

2 On Your Side checked with some Western New York hospital systems, and at latest counts, Erie County Medical Center reported it could have lost 800 staffers in that category, with Kaleida Health listing 1,100, Catholic Health was still calculating, and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center said non-compliant staffers could be fired come Tuesday. 

One hospital employee responded to the sudden change from the State Health Department saying, "lost a job and got it back in two hours. What a day."

Another staffer who works in medical technology said she did get the shot this past Monday, but says many of her colleagues didn't want it.

"A lot of people were willing to stick it out, and not get it, and be terminated in the end for it. We are concerned about putting something in our bodies," she said.

That worker also responded to the Friday afternoon shift in policy by saying, "I'm disgusted. I mean, how do you reverse this 48 hours before it's due? I mean, it's due Monday at 7 p.m., and so literally we're like down to the wire.

"What about all the people that got it that didn't want it, but got it because of all the reminders that they were sent to get it. And now, oh, you don't need it? You can wait another three months?"

The employee said she was swamped with urgent emails and texts from hospital managers, urging her to get the booster. She added that her workplace is still seriously short-staffed with calls to work additional shifts and constant efforts to recruit new workers. 

There were also reports of heavy lobbying by hospital trade groups and executives to urge the state to reverse course.

Larry Zielisnki is retired from his post as Buffalo General Hospital president and is now with the University at Buffalo School of Management. He also knows local hospitals are still struggling with staffing and also trying to fit in elective surgeries.

"When you are at risk of reducing that already challenged staffing by another 10 to 15 percent ... the same people that you're trying to create a safe environment for by demanding the booster, you're going to be creating a dangerous environment with short staffing in emergency rooms, short staffing in intensive care units," Zielisnki said.

Zielinski added this in regards to the state's prior booster approach: "It's a balancing act. It's not something that I think can be answered with sledgehammer responses. I think it calls for more nuance and a more tactical response."

Some also claim there may be a political element perhaps at work with this decision from the state, headed up by Governor Hochul in an election year.

Republican political analyst Carl Calabrese offer this opinion.

"You're seeing it not just in New York, but you're seeing it across the country," he said. "We've had 11 states that are lead by Democratic governors in the last week or so either greatly reduce mandates and restrictions or eliminate them. And I'm convinced the reason is the polling.

"And word is that the Democratic National Committee did the polling and got the word out to the party members that this is killing us (in terms of mandates and restrictions)." 

In fact, presumptive GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, who was in Williamsville earlier this week, heavily criticized Hochul and Democrats over the then potential vaccine booster requirement for health care employees.

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