New York could call in National Guard to cover hospital staff shortages

St Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York.
St Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - New York Governor Kathy Hochul is considering calling in the National Guard and recruiting medical professionals from other states to cover looming staff shortages at hospitals and other facilities as the likelihood grows that tens of thousands of healthcare workers will not meet the state's deadlines for mandated vaccinations.

In a statement released on Saturday (Sept 25), the governor's office said Mrs Hochul was laying plans for an executive order to declare a state of emergency that would "allow qualified healthcare professionals licensed in other states or countries, recent graduates, retired and formerly practising healthcare professionals to practice in New York state".

Other options, the statement said, included calling in medically trained National Guard members to deliver care and to work with the federal government to deploy disaster medical assistance teams, which are operated by the  United States Department of Health and Human Services.

New York state is one of the first major testing grounds for stronger vaccination edicts rolling in across the country in the healthcare sector. California and Maine have also set deadlines for healthcare workers to be vaccinated.

US President Joe Biden has said his administration will issue a national vaccination mandate expected to ultimately affect some 17 million healthcare workers at hospitals and other institutions that accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

Hospital and nursing home employees in New York are required to receive a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by 11.59pm on Monday night, while workers working in home care, hospices and other adult care facilities must do so by Oct 7, according to state regulations and a mandate issued on Aug 16 by former governor Andrew Cuomo.

State vaccination figures show that, as of Wednesday, 16 per cent of the state's roughly 450,000 hospital workers, or about 70,000, were not fully vaccinated. The data show that 15 per cent of staff at skilled nursing facilities and 14 per cent of workers at adult care facilities are also not fully vaccinated, representing another 25,000 or so workers.

The governor's office said workers terminated because they refuse to be vaccinated are not eligible for unemployment insurance unless they provide a doctor-approved request for a medical accommodation.

In announcing New York's determination to enforce its deadline, Mrs Hochul said: "We are still in a battle against Covid-19 to protect our loved ones, and we need to fight with every tool at our disposal."

She also commended the vast majority of state healthcare workers for getting vaccinated and urged "all remaining healthcare workers who are unvaccinated to do so now so they can continue providing care".

The Greater New York Hospital Association, which represents about 140 health systems and 55 nursing homes, had not issued a response to the governor's plan, but has supported the deadline for healthcare workers' vaccinations, signalling that staffing shortages can be managed.

Mr Michael A.L. Balboni, executive director of the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association, which represents about 80 nursing homes in the metropolitan area, applauded the governor's effort to get more healthcare workers vaccinated, but expressed concern about staffing shortages.

"This is a paradox, in that in trying to protect the residents and staff, you don't have enough people to provide the services and you could put people in jeopardy," he said.