Lewis Co. reports vaccine progress

Lewis County Health System Chief Executive Officer Gerald R. Cayer, right, listens to questions by local press representatives during a news conference on Friday announcing a “pause” to maternity services at the hospital due to a high number of resignations from staff members refusing the COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Julie Abbass/Watertown Daily Times

LOWVILLE — Over the weekend, more people got vaccinated for COVID-19 than quit their jobs at the Lewis County Health System as of 5 p.m. Monday, and no one department has been drastically implicated like the maternity department last week.

“We’re making progress but it’s kind of fluid, as you might guess,” said Health System Chief Executive Officer Gerald R. Cayer.

Since the Friday afternoon news conference announcing that the maternity department — including the labor, delivery and nursery areas — would have to be “paused” on Sept. 25, due to six employee vaccination-related resignations in the department and seven more team members who were undecided, another 10 people across the facility’s services and locations have resigned.

There have been 13 staff members, however, who decided to get vaccinated and retain their positions.

Since former Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the vaccination mandate on Aug. 23, a total of 43 people have been vaccinated and 40 have resigned, only one of which was a physician. There have not been any nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

As of 11:30 a.m. Monday, Mr. Cayer said the distribution of resignations had not implicated any one department as vulnerable as happened with the maternity department last week.

“The numbers will determine if (a department) stays on a watch list or not,” he said. “We know with O.B., we have a situation. We are working on some things actively right now.”

For Mr. Cayer and his team, Monday was focused on formulating the next plan to bring the maternity department’s staffing up to an acceptable level, including an effort to re-deploy nurses in the health system that are qualified for the maternity department as well as outside recruiting while still keeping an eye on the situation for the system’s other departments and clinics.

“There are five departments on our watch list and we are monitoring closely and clearly as our resignations and vaccinations shake out,” Mr. Cayer said. “We’ll be able to, hopefully, take them off the watch list.”

There are still 143 people, or about 20% of the more than 650-member staff, who had not yet indicated to health system management whether or not they intend to be vaccinated.

“I don’t think we’re going to have 143 people resign,” said Mr. Cayer, explaining that because it is a 24-hour facility, not every employee had been in yet for their shift by 5 p.m., and the deadline for providing two weeks notice with a resignation was at midnight.

Anyone resigning without giving two weeks notice will forfeit any “accrued benefits” like paid time off or sick leave.

Of the people who are unvaccinated, there are no members of management on the list, so all are technically eligible to lose accrued benefits.

“In reality, no. We do have a cohort of employees that when they earn benefit time, they use benefit time, so it’s not like they have much to lose if they don’t tell us ahead of time,” Mr. Cayer said. “But any organization has that.”

The goal in giving team members until midnight to resign or vaccinate is to ensure that every team member gets what they have earned if they decide they do not want to stay.

“The vaccine mandate is creating a few challenges but ultimately, I do think it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Cayer said. “I know if my family had to be cared for, I would expect them to be cared for by people who are vaccinated, and I am not alone in that thinking. I have gotten dozens of emails of support. I’ve also gotten a few with some colorful language that see differently.”

The Lewis County Health System consists of the general hospital that is a designated Critical Access Hospital, five community clinics around the county, a nursing home, hospice, a laboratory, imagining center, physician clinics, out-patient rehabilitation services and a provider of home health care and adult day care services.

It is the last of two county-owned facilities in the state.

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