As New York health care workers scrambled last week to meet that state’s mandatory COVID vaccination deadline, their counterparts in New Jersey also have faced pressure to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order for New Jersey is less strict than New York’s: It has allowed frequent COVID testing as an option for those who chose not to get vaccinated by Sept. 7. But most hospital systems and many nursing homes have imposed their own “vaccinate-or-out” policies. Deadlines vary, with most over the next six weeks.
The pressure is working.
Only a small percentage of health workers in New Jersey appear likely to lose their jobs because they refuse to get a COVID vaccine and have not obtained a religious or medical exemption. They’re getting vaccinated instead.
And many vaccine-hesitant employees who initially opted for testing have eventually chosen vaccination instead. New Jersey has about 650,000 health care workers, although those who work in private offices are not covered by the state mandate.
More getting the vaccine
Bayada, a home health care agency with 6,500 New Jersey employees, has seen the number of those who opted for weekly testing drop by more than half — from 645 to 248 — since the Sept. 7 mandate.
“Well over 300 said ‘Two times is enough’ to get swabbed, and got vaccinated,” said David Totaro, Bayada’s chief government affairs officer.
It was the same at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. From almost 400 who chose the testing option during the week of Sept. 7, the number has dropped to 150, said Michele Acito, executive vice president.
The dire consequences once predicted for New York — that National Guard troops would be deployed to fill in suddenly vacant positions, elective surgeries delayed and emergency admissions deflected — have largely failed to materialize there. And they seem unlikely to materialize in New Jersey.
“We monitor this on a daily basis,” said Dr. John Matsinger, chief operating officer for the Virtua Health system, whose staff faces an Oct. 15 deadline for full vaccination. Among 15,000 employees at Virtua’s five hospitals and other locations, the vaccination rate last week was 96%, with most others having obtained exemptions.
That’s up from 69% when the policy was announced July 30.
“A couple hundred people have declined the vaccinations,” Matsinger said. “Our belief is they’ve just told us they no longer want to work here.” They are not being scheduled for work shifts.
At Valley Health System in Ridgewood, 96% of the staff had chosen to be vaccinated as of Wednesday. That percentage continues to grow, said Maureen Curran Kleinman, a spokeswoman, “with only a small number of employees needing to undergo testing.”
CarePlus, a North Jersey mental health care provider with group residences, said 95% of its 516 employees were vaccinated by its Sept. 30 deadline. A handful had quit, Brigitte Johnson, its executive senior vice president, said Thursday, “and one went today to get the first shot.”
Shortages of nurses, other workers
However small the staff losses, they come during the worst workforce shortage the health care industry has experienced, said Cathy Bennett, CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association. Imposition of the mandates was a gamble, taken to protect the health of patients and other staff members.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the shortages worse. It’s “not just vaccination mandates,” she said, “but also stress and burnout, competing family care priorities, and competition for employees with other sectors.”
By including nearly all sectors of health employment — from hospitals to home health care — in his executive order, Murphy was able to avoid causing migration from one type of health workplace to another one with less stringent requirements.
But cafeteria workers, janitors and security personnel employed by health care institutions also must comply. Executives are concerned about losing them, too.
“Every industry is competing for the same individuals,” said Virtua’s Matsinger. “Some of the people in non-clinical jobs have just left the health care industry altogether.”
President Joe Biden’s announcement of vaccination mandates with a testing option for health care facilities that receive federal Medicare and Medicaid funding has helped. So has the White House’s push for other employers to require vaccination.
And this is not the first time health care workers in New Jersey have been told to get vaccinated. Last year, those who work for hospitals, nursing homes and home health care were required to get a flu shot, under a law signed in January 2020.
Early signs that mandates work
Health care institutions in New Jersey that imposed earlier deadlines gave a hint that the requirements were likely to work, and wouldn’t lead to catastrophic losses.
Just six managers — of nearly 3,000 — at RWJBarnabas Health, one of the state’s largest health systems, lost their jobs in July when they declined to get vaccinated. The system then extended the requirement to the rest of its 35,000 employees and 9,000 affiliated doctors. Their deadline is Oct.15.
And only five of 531 employees at Jewish Home Family, one of the first long-term care facilities to impose a vaccine requirement last summer, were let go.
“We felt it was a small price to pay” to protect residents and colleagues, said Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Jewish Home Family.
Managers of the 180-bed nursing home and 100-resident assisted living facility in Bergen County “worked very hard with each and every individual to make sure we addressed their concerns,” she said. “We are in a part of New Jersey that was hit very hard by the pandemic, and it doesn’t take much to invoke those images. All of them suffered losses of friends, family members and elders.”
The state’s other large health system, Hackensack Meridian Health, has also required its 36,000 employees to get fully vaccinated by Nov. 15. The deadline for the first shot was Oct. 1, and the system has “made tremendous progress,” a spokesman said.
Friendly approach better than a bonus
A one-on-one, non-judgmental approach by a trusted medical professional has proved most successful in encouraging hesitant staff members to be vaccinated, most employers said.
At Holy Name, an infectious disease specialist went through the list of unvaccinated employees and called each one before the Sept. 7 state mandate, said Acito, the executive vice president.
“We took a friendlier, less shameful approach,” she said. “We said, ‘We understand you have fears. Let us know what those fears are,’ and talked through it.”
Bayada initially offered a $50 payment to employees for each COVID shot they received. But individual calls from a clinician who worked with them and answered questions have proved to be far more effective, Totaro said.
COVID vaccines:Demand for booster shots is low so far in New Jersey
Testing hundreds of employees weekly can also be a significant expense — and one that employers would prefer to avoid, they said.
Employees who choose testing will likely not have automatic insurance coverage for the cost of the tests, either. The federal government pays the costs only for diagnostic testing of those with symptoms or a definite exposure to a COVID-positive person.
At CarePlus, negotiations with the employees’ union led to a compromise, Johnson said. Rather than being fired, unvaccinated employees who did not obtain an exemption by the non-profit’s Sept. 30 deadline will pay for their own tests.
Lindy Washburn is a senior health care reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up-to-date about how changes in health care affect you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: [email protected]