LOWVILLE — Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville was the first New York hospital to announce it’s cutting back services as medical workers resign in the face of COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
On Friday, Lewis County Health System CEO Gerald R. Cayer announced the hospital would pause service for its maternity ward on Sept. 25, after a number of unvaccinated clinical staffers resigned from the already understaffed department. Mr. Cayer said five other hospital departments are at risk of some service disruption as well.
Matthew F. Putorti, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New York’s 21st District, put some of the blame for this turn of events on the incumbent he’s challenging, Congresswoman Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville.
“Rather than encouraging her constituents to get vaccinated, which is the only thing that will get us out of this pandemic, she has been railing against mandates and that’s really troubling,” Mr. Putorti said in an interview Monday. “She’s sowing doubt in the minds of people about what we need to be doing to properly get out of this pandemic.”
Alex deGrasse, senior adviser to the congresswoman, said Rep. Stefanik has been a strong supporter of vaccines from the beginning, when she voted to fund Operation Warp Speed to quickly develop the vaccine in 2020.
He said the congresswoman’s message has been consistent — consult with your doctor and take the vaccine if you and your doctor agree it’s the proper choice.
“She has publicly advocated for the vaccine and thanks local leaders and health care officials for successfully ensuring the north country has a strong vaccine rate compared to the rest of New York state,” he said in an email Monday afternoon.
He said Rep. Stefanik does not support vaccine mandates and vowed to use Mr. Putorti’s support for vaccine mandates in the future.
“We will make sure every voter in the north country knows the far-left Democrat candidate for Congress supports Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate instead of north country health care workers,” he said.
Mr. deGrasse added that north country hospitals and medical facilities have always faced problems with getting enough staff to run their offices, and said the vaccine mandate undermines the already-shaky ground those facilities stand on by pushing more workers out.
In her public statements, Rep. Stefanik has taken a hard stance against vaccine mandates. On Sept. 9, when President Joseph R. Biden announced a wide-ranging series of vaccine mandates for federal employees and the private sector, Rep. Stefanik called it an “authoritarian power grab.”
“The American people should have the freedom to make the best decisions for their families, rather than accepting forced illegal mandates from a power hungry government,” she said in a statement.
The congresswoman repeated that point with a tweet from her congressional account Monday morning, calling the vaccine mandate an “unconstitutional, unlawful and authoritarian power grab.”
“I think it’s especially disrespectful to be tweeting against the vaccine mandate today, the same day a hospital in her district is going to have to close one of their wards because of it,” Mr. Putorti said.
Mr. Putorti said Rep. Stefanik hasn’t spent enough time encouraging her constituents to get vaccinated, and said she hasn’t brought that message to the district.
The congresswoman has called for those who can get a vaccine to do so, although not recently or very broadly. On July 15, the Glens Falls Post Star reported that Rep. Stefanik lauded the north country’s then-strong pace of vaccination, and suggested that seniors and other vulnerable populations should get a dose.
On July 22, Rep. Stefanik stood with Republican House leaders and the GOP Doctors Caucus, a group of congressional Republicans who worked as medical doctors, outside the U.S. Capitol and called for people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Rep. Stefanik did not specifically suggest taking the COVID-19 vaccine in her speech, but lauded the caucus for its work encouraging vaccines and pointed out how some rural counties in NY-21, namely Hamilton County, had achieved early and sustained success in vaccinating their populations.
“Some of the most rural counties in New York’s north country have been nationally recognized for their leadership in vaccine rates throughout the pandemic,” she said.
Mr. Putorti said these two instances, which are the extent of Rep. Stefanik’s recent positive messaging about the vaccines, aren’t nearly enough.
“Until we’re out of this pandemic, it is not enough to every once in a while tell people to get vaccinated,” he said.
Mr. Putorti said Rep. Stefanik, and anyone in Congress, should stick to the science, tell the truth and stop using the pandemic to “score political points.” He said, if he were the congressman for NY-21, he would encourage vaccinations for anyone who would listen.
“And I certainly support the vaccine mandates,” he added.
Mr. Putorti also said it’s imperative a solution be found immediately for Lewis County General Hospital, to prevent any further loss of services. He said it’s important to note the county is very rural and health care access is a perennial problem for many residents no matter the staffing levels at local hospitals.
“There might be medical personnel in the military who could help in this emergency situation; it could be trying to call back more retired nurses, although many of them have already returned to the industry,” he said. “We have to do whatever it takes.”