Lewis Co. takes more off watch list

Lewis County Health System main campus in Lowville. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

LOWVILLE — Three of the five departments at the Lewis County Health System that were in danger of being “paused” due to staff loss from resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine, like the maternity department, have been moved off the watch list.

The health system-wide vaccination rate was 83% as of Thursday afternoon, according to Chief Executive Officer Gerald R. Cayer, up 2 percentage points from Tuesday, the day after the majority of the 42 resignations then on file were issued in time to give two weeks’ notice and retain accrued benefits.

A total of 77 people have been vaccinated since the state vaccination mandate went into effect in late August.

One more resignation has been filed this week, bringing the total to 43 — about 70% are “clinical staff,” which includes lab, imaging, nursing, therapy and medical practitioner staff, among others.

There are still 112 people working at the health system, roughly 18% of the 630-member staff, who remain unvaccinated.

“At this point there are two clinical departments that I’m watching carefully,” Mr. Cayer said. “So far so good, but we’re being attentive. That’s a direct result in our improvement in our percent vaccinated.”

At one time, the Lewis County facility had one of the lowest vaccination rates, but now it is in the upper-mid range of hospitals throughout the state, having gained at least partial vaccination for an additional 10% of the staff since Friday’s news conference announcing the maternity department pause.

“I think this is remarkable,” Mr. Cayer said.

Noting that not all hospitals or health systems include a nursing home — Lewis County’s home has about 76% of staff vaccinated, according to the state’s online vaccination tracker — Mr. Cayer said the hospital alone is about 90% to 93% vaccinated.

While the federal vaccination mandate isn’t expected to have much of an impact locally, the legal freeze recently put on the vaccine mandate’s lack of a “religious exemption” is a situation that Mr. Cayer will watch.

“I think we need to allow the judicial process to work its way through,” Mr. Cayer said. “We have 12 religious exemption (requests) we’ve been receiving along the way. We just accepted them and put them in a hold file, but nothing else has changed.”

The facility has a medical exemption form that Mr. Cayer says will be honored if signed by a treating physician, but only a few have been submitted so far.

“From an operational perspective, (the injunction against the vaccination mandate) has not had a meaningful impact on how we’re conducting business,” he said.

No one who had submitted their resignation has pulled back their submission in order to “wait and see” if the vaccination requirement may be lifted.

Mr. Cayer confirmed that he and his team have been working internally to re-position staff so that all services have adequate coverage while “also aggressively working with outside agencies to help fill positions that will be vacant on the 28th.”

Most of his efforts right now, however, are focused on the maternity department by ensuring any requirements by the state Department of Health are prepared in case the “pause” needs to go into effect on Sept. 25. Simultaneously, he and his team are doing everything possible to prevent that pause.

“An equal priority that’s happening in real time is trying to staff maternity. The goal is not to have a pause at all and that’s always been the goal, but we couldn’t wait until the 24th to communicate to families what might happen,” Mr. Cayer said. “That’s why we held the local event (news conference on Friday) so we can be very transparent with our community.”

While both national and international news outlets picked up on Lewis County’s situation, Mr. Cayer said that was in no way his intent.

“There was no grand agenda, no grand scheme here,” he said. “Last week we were trying to facilitate bringing in agency staff and we continue to do that. It’s not like you can just snap your fingers and agencies tomorrow will drop five people on your property, so we’re working on that right now.”

COVID-19 numbers are growing rapidly in the county, with 13.7% of people tested getting positive results on Wednesday despite the seven- and 12-day rolling averages being at 7.4% and 7.3%, respectively.

For the north country as a whole, the positivity rate was 6.7% on Wednesday, just one percentage point higher than the seven- and 12-day rolling average of 5.7%.

The increase locally showed in the hospital’s emergency room.

“It was an incredibly busy day and really stressed the local health system, but the team stood up to the challenge and did a great job managing it,” he said. “We had COVID admissions, we had staff who were isolated, we had staff in quarantine and the team really rallied and did a good job working really hard to meet the needs of our patients. It was truly impressive what they did (on Wednesday) but it was just one more example of them stepping up.”

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