ALBANY – Battling the Covid-19 spread on legal and public health fronts, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday the state will “vigorously” defend a vaccine edict for health care workers while also imposing new mask-wearing mandates on state-regulated child care facilities, after-school programs and congregate and residential settings such as substance abuse programs and inpatient mental health facilities.
“We’re hoping we will make overwhelming, persuasive arguments in support of allowing the state of New York to do what is necessary to protect the public health," Hochul said about the state’s appearance before a federal judge in Utica who on Tuesday halted the looming vaccine mandate for health care workers no matter if someone has a religious objection.
"It's the smart thing to do and we have to continue the mandates," Hochul added. "This is not intended to be dictatorial; this is intended to save lives."
Hochul, sounding worried about more people gathering indoors as the more contagious Delta variant is spreading in many communities, said the “scariest announcements” each day involve the growing number of children contracting Covid.
With children under 12 not permitted to receive a vaccine, Hochul said the state will expand mask requirements to include more settings with children, such as child care facilities for those over the age of 2. She said it expands upon the state’s recent requirement for face coverings to be worn in schools across the state.
The governor, once again, said a vaccine mandate is still an option for teenagers, but that she understands there is “great sensitivity” on the part of parents about such forced vaccines for children. Instead, Hochul, like her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, sought to prod more young people to get vaccinated through incentives; Wednesday’s example was making 125 teens who get vaccinated eligible for free tickets to a concert in New York City.
But Hochul stood by her administration’s vaccine mandate on health care workers, which a federal judge on Tuesday temporarily restricted by banning enforcement of the mandate against any health worker who refuses to get vaccinated because of religious objections.
Hochul told reporters at the state Capitol on Wednesday that she expects some will try to “defy” her vaccination order, including by court challenges.
The state is due in court on Sept. 28 – a day after the mandate was scheduled to commence – to explain to U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd in Utica why its mandate does not discriminate against health workers who want religious exemptions to the requirement. The state’s health workers’ vaccine mandate order does not include any exemptions. Unlike some other vaccination programs, it also does not offer regular Covid testing as an alternative for those who refuse vaccines.
Some lawmakers and officials in the health care industry have been warning for weeks about a worsening health worker staff shortage if thousands of people refuse to get vaccinated and are fired or forced to resign from their jobs at hospitals, nursing homes and other settings. Hochul said the state is looking at ways to help prevent any crisis situations at health facilities, but noted that hospitals and others already are supposed to have emergency staffing plans to accommodate unexpected personnel shortages, such as the flu spreading through a workforce.
Hochul said she knew of no organized religious opposition to the vaccination, and noted Pope Francis has urged Catholics to get vaccinated.
“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 who are supposed to protect their health," she said. She said health workers have an obligation to be healthy themselves; one-third of health workers in some areas are still unvaccinated.
Hochul said the solution to worsening Covid levels – 2,424 people were hospitalized with Covid on Tuesday and at least 31 people died – if they simply got vaccinated. “We all want this to be over. Everybody’s tired of it," she said.
The governor said the state is preparing, pending overall federal approval expected this month, to distribute vaccine booster shots to people already vaccinated. She said the state will again let emergency medical technicians administer vaccine shots, a major push by county leaders across the state as a way of adding some 2,000 more people to get the boosters distributed.
Hochul, in her briefing, offered doses of optimism and worry. She praised Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz for a decision requiring fans to be vaccinated if they want to attend Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres home games. And she noted people not vaccinated are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die of Covid than vaccinated people. "Why would you take this gamble in the first place?" she says of unvaccinated people.
Besides child care settings, the new mask order applies to residential and congregate programs regulated by a number of state agencies, including the Office of Mental Health and the Office of Addiction Services and Supports, and cover everything from juvenile detention facilities and shelters for homeless youth and domestic violence victims to foster care programs.
The administration said the mask requirements for child care facilities aligns New York with federal guidance for face coverings.