NEW YORK STATE (WROC/WSYR) — Frontline health care workers were praised as heroes during the height of the pandemic, but the ones refusing to get vaccinated, despite the state mandate, feel like they’re being forgotten.

“It’s a hero to zero situation,” said Karen Downey, an emergency room nurse at Oswego Hospital. She’s worked in the profession for over 30 years and has decided not to get vaccinated because she believes in medical freedom and says it goes against her religion. She has submitted a religious exemption for her beliefs but is still awaiting Oswego Health’s decision.

“I’m just going to work until this is figured out and I’m just hoping that they come to their senses and allow people their freedom, their medical freedom,” Downey says. Her daughter, an ICU nurse at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse was denied her religious exemption request and is now looking for work. 

On Saturday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the deadline could leave New York in a state of emergency, as health care systems are already facing staffing shortages.

“I never thought I would live in a world where you were forced to be injected with something to keep a job that you’ve had for 31 years,” Downey said.

Victoria Wallace, an LPN at the Commons on St. Anthony nursing home in Auburn said she’s not getting the vaccine, either. There are too many unknowns for her. “Come next weekend, when I would typically join my crew and work both Saturday and Sunday night, even though I worked the whole week at school—I just won’t be there,” she said. 

This decision will not only hurt their wallets—they won’t qualify for unemployment—but it’s also hurting their hearts. “It’s just a lot when you’re losing people that you’ve worked with for six years that have really become your family and you have residents that have been your family for the past six years,” Wallace said, choking back tears. 

Another unvaccinated nurse is Krista Michael, a registered nurse with Unity Hospital for over 30 years. “I’m very disheartened that the governor just feels that we are dispensable,” she says.

Michael says she loves her job but isn’t ready to throw in the towel for not getting the vaccine. “I don’t want to be rushed into taking something,” she says. “My initial hope was: give it a couple years. I’d like to see how people who have taken it are doing physically in the next year, couple years.”

She says maybe someday, but it’s nobody’s business when or why. “As far as a mandate, I just don’t think it’s the government’s place to force me to take something otherwise my career is jeopardized,” Michael says.

She says she had already overcome COVID. “Being that I already have natural immunity as a survivor, I would like to have more time to choose,” Michael says. “I would like the privilege to choose, period.”

Michael is taking it day by day. “I’m not opposed to vaccines in general. I wouldn’t say that I’m anti-vax. It’s just for this one with the rush,” she says. “I just don’t feel the need for me to take it right now and I don’t want to be forced.”

For now, she’s preparing for the worst. “I don’t plan to resign,” Michael says. “I will go to work until they escort me out.”

Hochul is preparing as well, for a potential state of emergency declaration in anticipation of losing employees like Michael. Her contingency plan involves recruiting health care workers from other states and countries, recent graduates, those retired, and potentially members from the National Guard. Hochul says she also plans to work with federal and state officials to expedite visa requests for medical professionals who need them.

“You can bring in nurses from all over wherever you want to but you’re not going to replace the personal connection that so many nurses—because we are local—have with these people,” Wallace said. 

In the meantime, Michael says, “I am a bit overwhelmed. I am in my 50s, but I still have a lot to give. I have a lot to offer. I love my job, my coworkers, patients.”

Hospital systems say they’ve already been facing staffing shortages before the mandate. They’ve been struggling to navigate changes and accommodations and have said they will be assessing vaccination rates come Monday.

“I had conversations with health care systems yesterday, there’s an awful lot of their staff still getting vaccinated this weekend,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello. “Part of the challenge is understanding where we’re going to be in just a couple days, but I’m confident.”

There’s been several hundred religious exemption requests as well. A federal judge put a pause extending through October 12 on any mandate for those who’ve claimed a religious exemption.

As for what’s next for these health care workers? That’s up in the air right now.