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The Vaccine Mandate For Healthcare Workers Means Hospitals Are Losing Staff


Starting today, all health care workers in New York state must be vaccinated for COVID-19 or potentially lose their jobs. When state health officials announced the vaccine mandate, they said there would be no exemptions on religious grounds. A federal judge temporarily blocked that rule, setting up a legal showdown between public health and religious freedom. As North Country Public Radio's Ryan Finnerty reports, the debate has sparked protests and labor shortages for at least one hospital.

RYAN FINNERTY, BYLINE: In rural Lewis County, N.Y., the local hospital recently announced a major change.


GARRETT DOMBLEWSKI: Lowville's hospital will hold off on delivering babies starting later this month.

FINNERTY: Lewis County General Hospital suspended maternity care services after six staff members quit over the state's vaccine mandate for health care workers. Hospital CEO Gerald Cayer says the situation exacerbated an existing labor shortage.

GERALD CAYER: We have a smaller population in Lewis County. We have yet even a smaller population of a very skilled technical workforce. Any adjustment that occurs there can impact whether or not a service is available tomorrow.

FINNERTY: So-called medical freedom rallies have sprung up across New York state in support of medical workers opposed to getting vaccinated. Two hours from Lewis County, around 100 protesters crowded in front of the post office in the northern border town of Potsdam. Danielle Robar was one of them. She's a registered nurse at the local hospital.

DANIELLE ROBAR: They took away our religious exemption, which was my plan at first. And now, on September 27, I'm going to lose my job.

FINNERTY: But the court challenge may prevent that. Seventeen anonymous medical staff ranging from doctors to technicians sued the state, claiming a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom. The group's attorney, Steve Crampton, describes his clients as pro-life Christians and says they have a moral objection to how the vaccines were developed.

STEVE CRAMPTON: These vaccines, all of them that are now available in the U.S., have been developed by the use of either the testing or the development itself in which they use aborted baby tissue.

FINNERTY: None of the COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal cells. Pfizer and Moderna did use a fetal cell line during the testing process for their mRNA vaccines. And production of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine does require cell cultures originally derived from a 1985 abortion.

Faith-based and anti-abortion organizations, including the Catholic Church, have approved the Pfizer and Moderna shots for their followers. The vast majority of health care workers in New York appear to be complying with the mandate, with 84% fully immunized. There are dozens of vaccine-related lawsuits playing out around the country, but legal experts say mandates are likely to be upheld.

JENNIFER PIATT: There really is no fundamental right to avoid a vaccination.

FINNERTY: Jennifer Piatt is an attorney with the Network for Public Health Law. She says the U.S. Supreme Court has twice upheld states' right to mandate vaccines, but the court could decide to set some limits on that right.

PIATT: Whether the Supreme Court will want to take up cases that are articulating religious freedom-based arguments that they want to specifically address, that is totally up to the court.

FINNERTY: In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul says she stands by a mandate without religious exemptions, and the state will fight for that outcome. Today in New York City, Hochul said patients going into a hospital deserve to know their care provider is healthy.


KATHY HOCHUL: They have a right to be treated by someone who will not make them get sicker. My job, No. 1 in this state, is to keep people safe.

FINNERTY: An initial decision in the case is expected by mid-October. In the meantime, it will be left to employers to evaluate claims of religious objection.

For NPR news, I'm Ryan Finnerty in northern New York.


Ryan Finnerty is producer on Hawaii Public Radio's local public affairs talk show The Conversation where he reports on local and state politics, business, economics, science, and the environment. Before coming to Hawaii Public Radio, Ryan was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed at Schofield Barraks on Oahu. He graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in economics.