WARSAW — Employees of Wyoming County Community Health System, along with participants from other locations and retired nurses, spoke out over the weekend against the mandatory COVID-19 vaccines the state has mandated for healthcare workers and volunteers statewide.

On Monday, the hospital’s chief executive officer said WCCHS has been corresponding internally with its staff and providing updated information.

Among the WCCHS workers lined up along North Main Street, across from the hospital Saturday, were Tina Burton and Lida Sperry.

Burton, a licensed practical nurse, said the rally was not a rally against the hospital.

“The hospital’s hands are tied. They can only do what the state says they have to do,” said Burton. “This is against the mandate. This is my body, my choice.”

Sperry, a certified nursing assistant, said this is a deeper issue than what the rally participants were there for Saturday.

“It’s the basic principle, that they’re trying to take away our basic constitutional freedoms. If that doesn’t outrage the public, no matter what side you’re on, there’s something wrong,” she said.

The state’s vaccine mandate requires COVID-19 vaccinations for anyone who is “employed or affiliated ... paid or unpaid ... employees, members of the medical and nursing staff, contract staff, students and volunteers” at hospitals or nursing homes who could transmit COVID-19, if they have the virus, to patients, other staff members and residents through the activities their role requires them to do.

The state allows vaccination exemptions in the order for medical reasons. For a medical exemption to be acceptable, the health condition must be certified by a physician or a nurse practitioner as one that, combined with the vaccine, is likely to harm the person’s health.

On Aug. 23, an expanded order added employees of diagnostic and treatment centers, adult care facilities, home care agencies and hospice programs to the list of health care workers who are required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, however members of this group have until Oct. 7 to secure their first shots. Hospital and nursing home staff must have their first shots by Sept. 27.

People who do not comply, according to the mandate, will lose their jobs.

JOSEPH MCTERNAN, WCCHS chief executive officer, said, “This is a fluid and dynamic situation, and we are in the process of formalizing a policy to comply with the mandates set forth by New York State Department of Health and the New York State Public Health Planning Council and provide further guidance to our staff.”

McTernan and other hospital administrators noted a regulation issued from the Public Health Planning Council Thursday removed the religious exemption that had been included in the state Department of Health’s original orders.

“Currently 72% of our staff is vaccinated and all staff members comply with use of personal protective equipment to keep our patients and caregivers safe,” he said. “Due to the pandemic, healthcare staffing in Western New York, New York state, and nationwide is experiencing a significant shortage.”

WCCHS understands the purpose of the vaccine mandate, however remains concerned about the effect that staffing shortages may have on its ability to continue the full complement of care that WCCHS provides, McTernan said.

AT SATURDAY’S RALLY, Sperry said the elderly deserve better and asked what’s going to happen when those on staff leave.

“There aren’t enough people to fill these positions. The only ones that are going to suffer is our elderly. That’s who I’m fighting for — the ones we care for every day,” she said.

Burton said, “If they lose their jobs, then what happens to our patients and the residents in the skilled nursing facility? What happens to them? There’s already not enough people to take care of them.”

A short distance away was Wendy Reinbold, an EMT with the Fillmore Rescue Squad in Fillmore, Allegany County. She said people who feel New York State has no right to tell them that they have to inject something into their bodies were at the rally.

She said she has had COVID and that she will not take the vaccine.

“The community is going to go unprotected. There are enough of us that are not willing to take this that it’s going to be a problem and that’s sad for the community,” Reinbold said.

Reinbold said she supports people being able to get the vaccine if they want it.

“This is America. They should be able to have it. Good for them,” she said. “But, I feel that it has not been tested enough. I feel it has been politicized and I am standing up for our freedoms as Americans. I don’t want to take it. I don’t want them to be compromised, but I don’t want my health to be compromised either,” she said.

On the other side of North Main, Kathy Youngers of North Java and Ruth Hackett of Strykersville, who were sitting along North Main Street in front of the hospital, said they are retired registered nurses who worked at both the hospital and for the county Health Department.

“We’re here to support the nurses that are working now that have worked through the pandemic and have been the heroes, and now they’re victimized because they either take this vaccine, which is against our freedoms, or they could lose their jobs,” Youngers said. “We’re here to support them because they work so hard and we worked so hard as nurses when we were working, so we know what it’s like.”

NOYES HEALTH President and CEO Dr. J. Chad Teeters said the hospital has been regularly sharing information about the state vaccine mandate with employees as it receives the information.

“We do this through emails from administration, along with posting updates on the hospital Intranet site. Staff is encouraged to discuss their concerns over getting the vaccine with their supervisors and administration. Our CEO has an open-door policy and has addressed vaccination concerns with many employees already,” Teeters said.

Teeters said the direction from the state of New York about medical exemptions remains unclear. They will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

“Thankfully, many of those people have decided to move forward and get vaccinated. Full FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval of the Pfizer vaccine is certainly a deciding factor for many staff members who were sitting on the fence before, to go ahead and get the vaccine,” he said. “We are still so early in this process that we don’t have a hard count on how many employees will be filing for an exemption. There are currently 584 staff at Noyes. Roughly 80% of those are vaccinated and more have either expressed an interest in getting vaccinated or have signed up for one of our vaccine clinics already.”

The president and CEO said there is a form employees seeking a medical exemption can fill out. These forms will be reviewed by a committee at the University of Rochester Medical Center and will either be approved or denied, he said.

ORLEANS COMMUNITY HEALTH Interim Chief Executive Officer/Chief Financial Officer Marc Shurtz said Orleans has been sharing information about the vaccine mandate with associates via weekly letters.

“In this letter, associates are invited to talk with any member of leadership with questions/concerns on the mandate and directed to employee health, our pharmacy department, and/or doctors on staff with any questions/concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said.

Orleans Community Healthcare System is currently over 75% vaccinated, Shurtz said.

If unvaccinated employees lose their jobs, with the current national healthcare staffing shortage, this will have major consequences for Orleans Community Health, he said.

“OCH is comprised of a small rural hospital, healthcare clinic, and two dialysis centers that are already staffed to our minimum,” he said. “Therefore, each associate that we lose will have a major impact to our healthcare system and could lead to diversion situations and lack of services for our community.”

ROCHESTER REGIONAL HEALTH Public Relations Advisor Jillian Parker said RRH didn’t have anything new to announce regarding the vaccine mandate and staff and volunteers.

“There are ongoing communications and updates given to all RRH employees throughout the week,” she said.

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