CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. (WROC) — In less than two weeks, New York’s health care workers at hospitals and nursing homes will have to have their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, or they risk losing their jobs. 

Under the mandate, there is no test-out option for employees. It has caused some controversy and worry with many hospitals already struggling with staffing shortages from the pandemic. 

Michael Stapleton, the president and CEO of Thompson Health, says that, before the pandemic, they would typically have around 90 openings out of 1800 people. Currently, they have close to 300. The vaccine mandate could lead to more.

“We were having huge staffing struggles to begin with, even before this happened, and now they’re exacerbated, they’re even worse, and so it’s a huge challenge for us,” Stapleton said.

Since the vaccine mandate was announced in early August, Thompson Health has seen 115 workers get the shot. However, they still have close to 200 who haven’t been vaccinated.

“We’re going to lose people over this mandate. That breaks my heart. These are great people who’ve cared for our community over and over and over again, they’ve dedicated their life, they’ve dedicated their careers to taking care of people. And now they’re not potentially going to be able to,” Stapleton said. “That’s horrible.”

The vaccine mandate could also impact staffing at nursing homes, including the one through Thompson Health. “We have occupancy for 178 residents,” Stapleton said. “Nursing homes all across this area are closing and downsizing. And that creates a huge problem because what happens is, we then can’t discharge patients out of the hospital, patients back up in the hospital, and then patients back up in your ED because you have no inpatient beds for them.”

Due to staffing shortages, hospitals have been left making some changes. “Elective surgery cases,” Stapleton said. “We’re not going to be able to do all of them. We’re going to have to postpone some of them. We’re going to have to postpone some of our procedures, because we’re going to need to flex our staff around to those priority areas where the patients are still going to come.”

He also said there will be changes coming to the hospital’s cafeteria this weekend. “Our cafeteria will be strictly operational to feed our patients and residents,” Stapleton explained. “We no longer have the staff to feed our associates and visitors.”

While there are staffing shortages, Stapleton reiterated it’s still important for people to see the doctor. “What I don’t want to see is people putting off care, because for the last 12 months, we’ve been seeing the ramifications of all of these people who put off care during this pandemic. It can’t happen. People are coming in way too sick. They shouldn’t be this sick,” Stapleton said. “We want people to go see their primary care. We want people to do preventive medicine to take care of themselves. We’ve got to make sure that happens moving forward.” 

On Tuesday, a federal judge from Utica temporarily blocked the state’s vaccine mandate. However, it only applies to health care workers who claim a religious exemption. Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state will appeal the ruling.

As hospitals like Thompson’s figure out their plans in the coming weeks, Stapleton said he knows his employees will continue to provide good care. “This is an incredible health system, with an incredible number of dedicated employees who will do whatever is asked of them,” he said. “During that whole pandemic, when it started 18 months ago, there wasn’t one person out of 1800 that said ‘No, not doing that.’ Everybody was there, everybody was on the same page.”

Thompson Health is part of UR Medicine. It is the parent corporation overseeing the operation of five affiliate healthcare organizations in Ontario, Livingston, and Wayne counties. The corporations include F.F. Thompson Hospital, M.M. Ewing Continuing Care Center, FFTH Properties and Services, F.F. Thompson Foundation and F.F.T. Senior Communities.