BY MICHAEL WRIGHT AND DESIREE KEEGAN
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook Medicine have still not said whether a mandate announced last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo that all state hospital employees be vaccinated will be applied to the staff at SBSH — where employees interviewed this week estimated that as many as 25 percent of their colleagues are not vaccinated and union leaders have protested vaccination requirements for its members.
Stony Brook University and Stony Brook Medicine are part of the state university system, but the university has not said whether hospitals in its network would be considered state hospitals and fall under the governor’s mandate.
Most of the medical staff at the hospital are members of the 1199 United Healthcare Workers union, the largest healthcare union in the country. The union has already mounted protests outside private hospitals that imposed vaccination mandates on their staffs last month and employees at the hospital said this week that they would expect protests, and resignations, if Stony Brook Medicine imposed the vaccination mandate here.
One unvaccinated hospital employee, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared “retaliation” from hospital management, said that he would probably leave his job if the hospital required vaccinations.
“It would break my heart, but I’m at the point now that I would probably leave if they did it,” the employee, who has worked at the hospital for more than 10 years, said. “As of now, we have heard nothing from the hospital, so we are on the edges of our seats.”
Other employees, especially those who live to the west of the hospital, are already suffering from long commute times, he said, and a vaccination mandate for those who object could be the proverbial last straw, he surmised.
The worker said that the hospital is already suffering from staffing shortages in several departments and losing more employees because of a vaccination mandate would be a high hurdle for the hospital to overcome — with union contract negotiations on the horizon as well.
“It’s hard to get people to come out here to work,” he said. “The staffing situation is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
His personal objections to getting the vaccine are rooted in unease about the hurried development of the vaccines, especially the Pfizer and Moderna MRNA vaccines, and unrealized side effects. He said he contracted COVID-19 in October and presumes he is still benefiting from natural immunity.
State statistics show that about 72 percent of all hospital employees statewide have been vaccinated, a ratio about on par with the general population.
The 1199 union has publicly adopted a stance that its members should get vaccinated, but that it should be solely an employee’s choice. The union mounted a protest late last month outside New York Presbyterian Hospital, which adopted a mandatory vaccination policy for its employees.
“The last thing you want to do is chase health care workers out of the field right now and that’s the main reason,” 1199 Vice President Greg Speller told Spectrum News NY1, a New York City television news network, at that protest. “It should be their choice but we’re going to continue to really work hard to make sure our members get vaccinated because that is so important. But it doesn’t make sense to make vaccination a condition of employment and basically fire somebody. We don’t think that is right.”
The 1199 position is in stark contrast to the position of the Civil Service Employees Union, which represents most municipal employees on Long Island and has generally supported a requirement by employers that staff either be vaccinated or tested for coronavirus infections regularly.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that he expects the town will agree as soon as this week to begin requiring town employees either be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests and will be re-adopting masking protocols as “guidance.”
“I think given concerns about the increase in the cases, we’ll very likely go back to asking people to be masked indoors,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “We’ll be having a discussion internally about the next steps after that. It’s certainly on the table that we’ll require masks indoors and that we may require employees to be vaccinated or to get tested weekly.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said that Southampton, which has been far less strict in its handing of COVID-19 protocols, said the town has not yet considered imposing new mandates, but is watching infection metrics closely.
“I’m not feeling like right now we need to change anything,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “The decision really has to be based on your area and the positivity rate. I’m watching the numbers closely. If they keep climbing, we may have to consider some new steps.”
New York City announced this week that it will require all of its employees to either be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing and that all patrons of restaurants and gyms will have to show proof of vaccination. Several large private companies — Google, Facebook and Lyft — are now requiring that all their employees be vaccinated.
Infection rates statewide and in Suffolk County have been climbing steadily in the last month, though they remain relatively low compared to previous surges of infections and to other states, some of which are seeing their highest infection or hospitalization rates since the start of the pandemic as the more contagious Delta variant has spread across the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week reversed its indoor mask policy amid the rapid rise in cases nationwide, now recommending that even fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks indoors again in places with high COVID transmission rates.
The CDC has listed Suffolk County as having a “substantial” transmission rate.
The agency is also recommending kids wear masks in schools this fall.
“This pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on a call July 27. “Today, we have new science related to the delta variant that requires us to update the guidance regarding what you can do when you are fully vaccinated. This new science is worrisome, and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations. This is not a decision that we or the CDC has made lightly.”
Local school districts like Hampton Bays, Westhampton Beach, Southampton and East Hampton made statements reiterating that they are awaiting state guidance before announcing any final decision on a masking policy this fall. New York officials have yet to publicize a stance on the matter.
Local districts did not require students, faculty or staff to wear masks outdoors during summer school, nor indoors while eating.
“Masks are not required for vaccinated or unvaccinated students, faculty and staff when outdoors,” Hampton Bays Superintendent Lars Clemensen said in a letter to parents July 12. “The district will continue to honor the rights of individuals who choose to wear masks in both the indoor and outdoor settings despite this change in state guidance for the summer.”
“Once we receive guidance from the New York State Department of Health, Suffolk County Department of Health and State Education Department, we will figure out what we are required to do,” East Hampton Superintendent Adam Fine had said. “At that point, I will bring my recommendations to the Board of Education for discussion and a decision.”
At the July 26 Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Jeff Nichols said that in all likelihood students and teachers in the elementary and middle-high school will be masking up once again when they return to classrooms for the 2021-22 school year.
“The primary consideration is that vaccines still aren’t available to children 11 and under,” the superintendent said, adding that until the COVID vaccine is approved for emergency use for children 5 to 11 years old, the “prudent thing to do” is require masks.
“We cannot go through what we went through over the past year,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a July 27 news conference. “The vaccines work. They work, and it’s proven in the numbers.”
Colleges and many large corporations are currently mandating vaccinations for students and employees before they can return to those settings.
Since the new surge in cases, daily vaccination rates have begun climbing again, with more than 30,000 shots administered statewide on Tuesday.
The overwhelming majority of serious COVID cases — 97 percent of hospital admissions and 99.5 percent of coronavirus deaths — are occurring among those who are not vaccinated.
Governor Cuomo urged New Yorkers to “be smart again” about their approach to protecting themselves and others that helped the state overcome the initial surge in the spring.
“We’ve seen this movie … you know how this turns out,” he said. “Don’t wait for what you know is going to happen. We beat the damn thing by being smart the first time. Be smart again. New Yorkers did not make a decision the first time because of the CDC. It’s because they got the facts, they’re smart and they made a decision on the facts.”