An upstate New York hospital system said it will be forced to "pause" maternity services later this month after employees refusing to vaccinate against the coronavirus have caused staffing shortages.
Lewis County Health System is experiencing mass resignations as a result of its Covid-19 vaccine mandate, putting some services at risk, Lewis County Health System CEO Gerald R. Cayer said Friday. The maternity unit is already seeing staff shortages, with at least six resignations so far and seven others who have expressed an unwillingness to be vaccinated.
"We are unable to safely staff the service after Sept. 24," Cayer said. "The number of resignations received leaves us no choice but to pause delivering babies at Lewis County General Hospital."
Hospital administrators are working on "contingency plans" in the case more mass resignations put other essential services at risk.
The deadline for health care staff to receive their first vaccine dose is Sept. 27, according to New York State law. Medical exemptions are made for those who are allergic to or have had previous adverse reactions to vaccines, with certification from a licensed physician or certified nurse practitioner.
New York state does not allow for religious exemptions to its vaccine mandate for healthcare and nursing home workers, noting that the state has previously eliminated religious exemptions in 2019 during a measles outbreak.
Cayer said during a county meeting Friday that he "unequivocally" supports a vaccine mandate for health care workers. He added that essential services are not at risk because of the mandate, which ensures a "healthy workforce."
"We as employees have an obligation not to put those we care for or our coworkers at risk," Cayer said.
At least 464 staff members, about 73 percent, of the hospital system have been vaccinated with another 165 staff members still unvaccinated. The majority of resignations so far have come from clinical services, which put a number of areas at risk, Cayer said.
Lewis County currently has a 7-day positivity rate of 5.8 percent, though the average for the state remains at 3.2 percent, according to New York state data.
President Joe Biden announced Thursday that his administration would issue sweeping vaccine mandates on the federal level. Employees working in health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement will be required to be vaccinated, according to Biden.
The Department of Labor was asked to issue an emergency ruling that employers with more than 100 employees would have to enforce vaccine mandates and weekly testing for the unvaccinated or face a $14,000 fine per violation.
Vaccine mandates might be tested in federal court, particularly where mandates do not accept religious exemptions. Currently, no major organized religion objects to the vaccines, and Roman Catholic and other Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have advised followers to get inoculated.
Experts told NBC News that the threshold for religious exemptions could come down to proving whether the person attempting to obtain one has "sincerely held beliefs" against getting vaccinated on religious grounds, including showing a history of whether they have had previous vaccine objections.