NY won’t enforce booster mandate for health care workers

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York will not enforce its mandate requiring health care workers to get COVID-19 boosters in light of concerns about staffing shortages, state health officials said Friday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul pointed to a troubling rise in breakthrough infections when she announced the mandate in January. The Democrat’s administration set a deadline of Feb. 21.

But state health commissioner Mary Bassett said Friday that the decision to drop enforcement of the mandate reflects the reality that booster rates remain far below 100% in nursing homes and hospitals.

Nursing homes and hospitals in New York have vaccinated nearly all employees, but health experts worry that booster rates are too low to protect against future surges as a vaccination’s efficacy wanes over time. COVID-19 vaccine booster shots provide 90% protection against hospitalization, according to data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month.

About 43% of roughly 146,000 nursing home staffers across New York were fully vaccinated with a booster shot, according to The Associated Press’ analysis of the latest state Department of Health data released Wednesday.

That’s up from about 20% as of early January, when Hochul first announced the booster mandate.

Still, several dozen nursing homes reported as few as 0% of workers with booster shots, with rates lowest in Brooklyn as well as upstate counties in the Finger Lakes, central and northern New York.

Meanwhile, 54% of 514,000 hospital staff have booster shots, according to state data. Fewer than one-third of workers reportedly had booster shots at two dozen hospitals from the Bronx, to Rockland County, to Utica, to Erie County.

State health officials are pointing to a rosier figure: the number of staffers who have a booster shot or say they’re willing.

“While we are making progress with 75% of staff received or are willing to receive their booster, the reality is that not enough healthcare workers will be boosted by next week’s requirement in order to avoid substantial staffing issues in our already overstressed healthcare system,” Bassett said in a statement.

In recent weeks, health care industry leaders — including Greater New York Hospital Association President Kenneth Raske — have urged the state to rethink the mandate.

“The state has recently heard from numerous stakeholders about how enforcement of the booster mandate could exacerbate New York’s health care staffing shortage, which is the subject of a declared emergency,” Raske said in a statement.

LeadingAge New York CEO Jim Clyne praised New York’s move to halt enforcement of the mandate as “smart.”

“Three days were not going to be enough time to get enough boosted staff members to serve the residents and patients we have to serve,” he said.

New York already requires health care workers to get vaccinated, with exemptions for workers who have a medical reason for not being eligible to receive the shot. The state was set to join a few states that have announced plans to require boosters for health care workers, including California, Connecticut and New Mexico.

In Connecticut, fear of staffing shortages also led to the General Assembly’s vote last week to extend the deadline for Lamont’s executive order that requires nursing home staff be fully vaccinated with a booster shot. They faced a Feb. 11 deadline to get a booster, but the legislation extended it to March 7.

Since December, Hochul’s administration has forced several dozen short-staffed hospitals to halt elective surgeries. Fewer hospitals have faced such restrictions as staffing crunches ease.

Bassett said state health officials will take another look at the booster mandate in three months to decide whether New York should take more steps to increase booster rates.

She also said the state will work with hospital and long-term care home leaders on potential ways to expand access to boosters.

Clyne said that could include ways to offer more vaccination opportunities at assisted living homes.

But he said the biggest hurdle remains figuring out how to fight against false and misleading statements about the COVID-19 booster spread on social media, particularly in rural and minority communities.

“Education is the biggest issue,” Clyne said. “It just takes time.”


AP writer Susan Haigh contributed reporting from Hartford, Connecticut.