After Removing Religious Exemptions For NY Health Workers, Gov. Hochul Looks To Broaden Vaccine Mandate

New York has a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in place for hospital and nursing home staff, and Governor Kathy Hochul wants to expand it to cover all state-regulated facilities and congregate settings.

Her announcement comes days after a state decision to further tighten the health care worker mandate, by eliminating religious exemptions against taking the shots.

“We’re going to be exploring all of our options to expand this, expanding mandates, not test-outs, to all state-regulated facilities and congregate facilities,” Hochul said Tuesday morning at a press conference in Buffalo. “We have to let people know when they walk into our facilities that the people that are taking care of them…are safe themselves and will not spread this.”

The state regulates facilities, such as private and charter schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers, jails and shelters, though it’s not clear how broad any forthcoming mandate might be. The governor’s office didn’t return a request for further clarification.

The current mandate covers all employees in hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, long-term care facilities and other places regulated by the state Health Department. Staffs there must have at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27.

That mandate had previously allowed religious exemptions, but the state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council eliminated this provision on Aug. 26, Crain’s New York reported. Medical exemptions are still allowed under the new rules, but only one condition is thought to qualify: severe allergies.

“We’re not constitutionally required to provide a religious exemption,” said Health Department attorney Vanessa Murphy at an Aug. 26 meeting. Murphy pointed to legislation in 2019 that removed the religious exemptions for childhood immunizations following large measles outbreaks in Brooklyn and Rockland County fueled by low vaccination rates. That law survived various legal challenges.

Mandating vaccines has more than a century’s worth of legal precedent in the United States upheld by the Supreme Court.

That hasn’t stopped protests against the mandates in New York City. Health care workers walked out of Staten Island University Hospital earlier this month, and last week, municipal workers rallied outside of City Hall. New York City public school teachers are also required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, with no option to test out.

As of August 25th, 77% of the state’s hospital workers had completed the full course of COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, 73% of skilled nursing staff and 78% of workers at adult care facilities had taken at least one dose.

At Northwell Health, which employs 76,000 people across a constellation of hospitals and health care facilities, vaccination rates are up to 82%, according to Jason Molinet, a spokesperson for the network.

“While we have received widespread support from patients, team members and the community for these vaccine requirements, we acknowledge that others remain uncertain about the vaccine,” Molinet said, adding the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine will help boost uptake among staff.

The state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council, which oversees health regulations, plans to meet again Thursday morning, though its agenda is unclear as of Tuesday afternoon.