What a federal judge did in Utica, Tuesday, is getting national headlines. The Hon. David N. Hurd temporarily blocked New York State's vaccine mandate requiring all health care workers to be partially inoculated by the end of September. Judge Hurd issued the order after a group of 17 health care professionals sued, saying their constitutional rights were infringed upon because the mandate didn't allow for religious exemptions. But what the judge did, is temporary.
"There's going to be a hearing in court that's been scheduled and the judge ordered the parties to appear in person and at that time, he'll hear both sides and then he'll make a determination as to whether this should be a permanent injunction or stop the temporary injunction," says Utica attorney, Mark Wolber.
Gov. Kathy Hochul addressed Hurd's decision during a televised COVID briefing Wednesday, saying she's not aware of any religious exemptions that would apply.
"To the extent that there’s leadership of different religious organizations that have spoken, and they have, I’m not aware of a sanctioned religious exemption from any organized religion," she said. "In fact, they’re encouraging the opposite. They’re encouraging their members, everybody from the Pope on down, is encouraging people to get vaccinated."
Hochul added that the mandate is to protect staff and patients.
"We are going to make sure that we defend the right of the State of New York to ensure that anyone in a health care facility can meet a patient, and that patient does not have to worry when they go in there for health care, that they’re going to contract a virus from one of the people that’s supposed to protect their health. That doesn’t make sense," said Hochul.
For now, local hospital leadership we spoke with tell us they're not really doing anything differently after Tuesday's ruling.
"Providing a religious accommodation is nothing new. Employers have had to do that under title VII, so we've done that in the past and we'll continue to do that so it really has not affected how we're approaching this mandate," says Paul Uhrig, Chief Legal Officer for Bassett Healthcare.
"It honestly isn't keeping us from doing the planning that we need to do because we don't know where it's gonna land you know when it might change, what it might change to so we have to be prepared for different contingencies," says Kent Hall, MD, Senior Vice President CMO/CPE, for MVHS.
Currently, less than 15% of Bassett's workforce is unvaccinated. MVHS estimates their unvaccinated population has now gone below 20%. Both say they're vaccinating staff daily. They say even if they do lose multiple employees to the mandate, they don't expect to have to cut services.
"We are not looking to cut any services at all. That will not be necessary for us. We may need to redistribute some staff defending on where this goes," says Hall.
"We have no plans to close any services at this time, but we meet on a daily basis to monitor the situation and we'll put in place contingency plans to keep open our services," says Uhrig.
The state has until Sept. 22 to officially respond to the health care workers' lawsuit. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 28.