Dansville healthcare workers faced with choice: COVID-19 vaccine or loss of their job

At Noyes Health, 79% of employees have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine as of Sept. 7, but some healthcare workers vow not to follow the state mandate.

Chris Potter
The Evening Tribune

DANSVILLE — Shanna Burley is a Dansville native who has worked at her hometown hospital, Noyes Health, for eight years.

Burley isn’t sure she’ll have a job come Sept. 27.

That’s the current deadline for healthcare workers to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or lose their job, according to an order issued by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration.

Burley and over 50 other people, many of them healthcare workers and their families, protested the vaccine mandate outside Noyes Health along State Route 36 Thursday afternoon.

Other rallies have been held recently across New York state, as Republican leaders in Albany warned the order could cause a workforce shortage in health care.

Hochul said Wednesday she is open to potentially amending the mandate, including adding a test-out option, but highlighted the importance of protecting patients from COVID-19.

“We have to realize that there is a tremendous risk involved when someone, who is there to take care of peoples’ health needs, if they too can be carrying the virus,” she said, citing outbreaks last year linked to health worker exposures.

Most of the Dansville crowd held homemade signs proclaiming opposition to the mandate, with a number reading some variation of “My body, my choice.”

“The mandate is taking that freedom away,” said Burley. “Whether you want to get the vaccine or not, I support either decision. I don’t think that anybody should force you one way or another. I’m losing my job because my thought doesn’t align with the mandate. I will lose my income, our patients will suffer, our community will suffer.” 

Protestors gathered outside UR Medicine | Noyes Health in Dansville Thursday afternoon to protest vaccine mandates. A New York State Department of Health board approved emergency authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all health care workers in the state, with the first dose for current personnel required by Sept. 27.

Burley is a dietetic technician at Noyes. Her coworker in the clinical nutrition department has similar views and also attended the protest, potentially leaving the department empty on Sept. 27. 

“The entire clinical nutrition department will be gone. Anybody who is on a tube feed or any kind of therapeutic diet will not be getting education to help their disease process because we will no longer be here,” said Burley. “We’re already in crisis. Staffing here is already an issue no matter what department you work at. I live locally, I grew up here, my kids come here for healthcare, I come here for healthcare. It’s not just hurting other people, it’s hurting myself too. I don’t want that.” 

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Vaccinate rates high at area hospitals 

Other departments may be better prepared for a loss of personnel. According to state data, 79% of Noyes employees had completed the vaccine series as of Sept. 7. Two other regional hospitals in the University of Rochester healthcare system, St. James in Hornell and Jones Memorial in Wellsville, reported similar figures. Eighty-four percent of St. James employees had completed the vaccine series on Sept. 7. The figure stood at 75% at Jones Memorial. 

The vaccine mandate recently approved by a key Department of Health council and Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker reversed a plan to allow health care workers to refuse COVID-19 shots due to religious beliefs. Health care workers may still claim limited medical exemptions to the COVID-19 shots. 

The state’s hardline stance on vaccines for health care workers may soften before the Sept. 27 deadline.

"But now we have the weapon to fight back, and that is the vaccine. So there may be very narrow accommodations to be made, but I believe overall we have to make sure that our health care workers are vaccinated," Hochul said.

Hochul also noted she is talking with health care unions to assuage concerns about worker shortages during the current COVID-19 surge.

Healthcare workers unsure of what will happen Sept. 27

Protestors gathered outside UR Medicine | Noyes Health in Dansville Thursday afternoon to protest vaccine mandates. A New York State Department of Health board approved emergency authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all health care workers in the state, with the first dose for current personnel required by Sept. 27.

Cindy Buckley is a unit clerk in intensive care at Noyes, where she’s worked for over 20 years. Now 63 years old, Buckley had no intentions of retiring anytime soon. The controversy over the vaccine mandate has her wondering if that day might come sooner than she ever expected. 

“I don’t feel people should be forced to get a vaccine in order to keep their jobs,” said Buckley. “I’m all in support of anyone that wants to get it if that’s what’s right for them, but I feel like people should be given a choice.” 

Around the same time as the protest, President Joe Biden announced a plan requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated or tested weekly. It could affect more than 80 million people.

While the FDA has granted the Pfizer vaccine its full approval, with other vaccines advancing through the approval process, Buckley remains cautious. Wearing a hat themed after the American flag at Thursday’s protest, Burley said the mandate represents government overreach. 

“We’ve been working through this since last March. A lot of us have not gotten sick. Does that mean we won’t? Absolutely not,” she said. “Myself, I’m willing to take that chance. I’d rather get COVID than get the vaccine right now. Until they know more about it, I don’t trust it. I don’t feel anyone has the right to tell you what you need to put in your body. You should be able to choose that yourself. That’s why I’m standing here today.” 

Buckley and Burley both said their potential departure from Noyes has been termed an “involuntary resignation” by supervisors.  

“We’re doing what we can, but if nothing changes there’s a large group that’s going to be done,” said Burley. “We don’t know how that’s going to happen yet. We have to show our vaccine cards by potentially the 27th, but we don’t know if we’re getting walked out, I don’t know if I’m going to get a pink slip. 

“I’m going to show up on Monday, the 27th because I’m not abandoning my job or my patients. I will come to work like I’m supposed to.” 

With additional reporting by David Robinson, state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York.

Chris Potter can be reached at cpotter@gannett.com or on Twitter @ChrisPotter413. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.