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Home care workers face deadline to get vaccinated in NY

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO News (file photo)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Home health aides who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccination are barred from working with patients in New York as of Friday under a new state mandate that one industry group warned could lead to thousands of caregivers losing their jobs.

The mandate, put in place by Gov. Kathy Hochul, also applies to workers at assisted living homes, hospice care, treatment centers and AIDS home care programs. It comes on top of another mandate, implemented last month, that covered hospital and nursing home workers.

The state’s vaccine mandate says health care employers can fire unvaccinated workers when it’s impossible to prevent them from exposing patients or colleagues.

About 86% of 244,750 home health aides who provide direct care in New York have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to state Department of Health self-reported data provided to The Associated Press on Friday.

Of those aides, 71.3% are fully vaccinated.

Joe Pecora, vice president of the Home Healthcare Workers of America, recently estimated that nearly 70% of the group’s 32,000 members had received the COVID-19 shot.

It was unclear early Friday whether home health agencies were having to suspend or lay off large numbers of workers. Hospitals across the state did have to lay off staffers who refused the shots, but a last-minute rush of reluctant workers to get vaccinated prevented large-scale staff shortages.

The Home Care Association of New York State is urging home health agencies to notify the state Department of Health of any emergency capacity concerns due to the mandate. The health department didn’t immediately provide data on vaccination rates or staffing shortages for home care agencies.

As of Friday, 97% of staffers at the not-for-profit Visiting Nurse Service of New York were vaccinated or received an exemption, according to spokesperson Caren Browning. The home care agency has 8,800 home health aides and served 75,000 patients last year.

Browning said it was “one of the few home care agencies to set up a vaccine clinic to vaccinate staff” and community members.

Representatives of leading home care associations have met with Hochul and state health department officials to push the state to phase-in vaccinations and provide emergency funding for home care providers.

Home Care Association of New York State President and CEO Al Cardillo warned foreign and out-of-state workers alone won’t be able to fill staffing holes.

Hochul, a Democrat, has said the mandates for health care workers are needed to protect vulnerable New Yorkers from being infected by unvaccinated caregivers. Many of the deaths in the state’s nursing homes during the worst months of the pandemic in 2020 have been blamed on infected staff unknowingly spreading the virus to already fragile patients.

Health department spokesperson Jill Montag said individuals have a right to request that individuals who enter their homes are vaccinated.

The state’s mandate is set to expand again on Nov. 1 to cover workers who work in state-run facilities offering health care to individuals living with developmental disabilities or mental health needs.

Court challenges aimed at overturning the mandates have, so far, failed, including a ruling Friday from a state judge in Albany that lifted a temporary restraining order that had been in place and denied a preliminary injunction against a mandate. But a federal judge has temporarily allowed health care workers to request a religious exemption from vaccination while the legal fights play out.