LOWVILLE — Although the number of vaccinated people is creeping up at Lewis County Health System, the staffing challenge remains earnest and assistance from the state is non-existent.
As of Friday afternoon at 4:16 p.m., there were only five unvaccinated employees remaining on an unpaid leave of absence, down from 12 on Monday. Because the hospital operates 24 hours every day, employees had until 11:59 p.m. on Friday to show proof of vaccination, or be terminated.
The number of resignations remains at 35, but two people who had submitted religious exemptions decided to get vaccinated instead.
Five people have been approved for temporary medical exemptions, according to Lewis County Health System spokesperson Christina L. Flint, and 24 have submitted religious exemption applications.
Health care workers across the state who have submitted religious exemption applications, including those at Lewis County Health, are hoping a temporary restraining order against the state for prohibiting religious exemptions will lead to a federal ruling in their favor.
A decision is expected to come from the federal case in Utica by Oct. 12.
“If the court rules in favor of the state, members of the team with a religious exemption will have 48 hours to be vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination,” the health system’s Chief Executive Officer Gerald R. Cayer said in a statement through Ms. Flint. “Otherwise, they will not be able to work at LCHS.”
Until then, with at least 35 positions that need to be filled on top of the dozens that were open before the vaccine mandate was announced, Mr. Cayer said his team is actively recruiting and in constant contact with the agencies that provide temporary, contract-based travel nurses and other staff to hospitals.
The health system management team is also “working to develop additional incentives to support our recruitment efforts,” Mr. Cayer said.
Last week, Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul announced she had plans to help facilities like Lewis County Health find the staffing they need by declaring a health emergency and bringing in health care workers from the National Guard.
As of Friday afternoon, Mr. Cayer indicated the county health system had “not received any staffing resources from the state.”
A June initiative increasing basic wages for certified nursing assistants to $20, and all licensed practical nurse pay levels up by $2.50 per hour, is helping to address the problem in the health system’s nursing home on those nursing levels.
In a health system board meeting on Monday, Mr. Cayer said that there have been 100 applications for certified nursing assistant and licensed practical nurse positions at the nursing home, with 19 in the current training class and the next two classes full or nearly full.
He said orientation takes between four and eight weeks, depending on a person’s experience.
On Monday, Mr. Cayer reported there are currently 113 residents in the 160-bed nursing home.
With Lewis County General Hospital’s maternity ward “pause” at the one-week mark, management is making an effort to publicize agreements with local hospitals so pregnant women can still see obstetricians for pre-natal care at the Lewis County facility until weeks 32 and 36 of their pregnancy.
At that point, the Lewis County practitioners will help the mothers-to-be transition to the maternity center at the Carthage Area Hospital, Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown or Mohawk Valley Medical Center in Utica. After babies are born, post-natal care can begin with the mother’s original doctor, though all choices are up to the mother. The agreements were made to make the transitions easier.
Meanwhile, the hospital continues to work to restart maternity services as soon as suitable, qualified staff can be found, Mr. Cayer said.
The CEO told the board that while there are no departments in immediate danger of shutting down, there are a few departments being watched carefully to ensure “pausing” doesn’t become a trend.