Vaccine holdouts are just 1.8% of NY’s largest health provider—now they’re fired

A city-operated mobile pharmacy advertises the COVID-19 vaccine in a Brooklyn neighborhood on July 30, 2021, in New York City.
Enlarge / A city-operated mobile pharmacy advertises the COVID-19 vaccine in a Brooklyn neighborhood on July 30, 2021, in New York City.

Northwell Health, the largest health care provider in New York, announced Monday that it fired just a sliver of its staff for failing to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate—and there will be no interruptions to patient care at the system’s 23 hospitals and over 830 outpatient facilities.

In all, Northwell terminated only 1,400 of its more than 76,000-member workforce—that’s roughly 1.8 percent.

“Northwell Health is proud to announce that our workforce—the largest in New York State—is 100 percent vaccinated,” the company said in a statement. “This allows us to continue to provide exceptional care at all of our facilities without interruption and remain open and fully operational.”

“Northwell regrets losing any employee under such circumstances,” the health care provider added, referring to the 1,400 terminated employees. “We owe it to our staff, our patients, and the communities we serve to be 100 percent vaccinated against COVID-19.”

The same story seems to be playing out throughout the state and country as mandates go into effect. Though larger chunks of the workforces initially resisted complying with vaccination mandates, few have followed through to the point of losing their jobs.

In survey results released late last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 50 percent of unvaccinated respondents said they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19 if it was required by their employer. But a recent informal analysis by public communication researchers found that it appears common for only a small fraction of workers to end up losing their jobs over vaccines.

Mandating success

A mandate at Indiana University Health, for instance, resulted in just 0.3 percent of the workforce quitting, the researchers noted in their analysis, published by the nonprofit news outlet The Conversation. Just 0.6 percent of workers at Houston Methodist Hospital ended up leaving over a vaccine mandate, despite much publicity of vocal objectors. And just 2 percent of Delta Air Lines employees quit over a requirement to either get vaccinated or pay a $200-per-month insurance surcharge.

“In other words, vaccine mandates are unlikely to result in a wave of resignations—but they are likely to lead to a boost in vaccination rates.”

That situation is playing out in New York, which has a particularly strict mandate for health care workers. The state provides no alternatives to getting vaccinated, such as weekly testing or pricey surcharges. It also does not allow for religious exemptions, though that issue is facing legal challenges.

While New York officials prepared for potentially tens of thousands of health care workers to lose their jobs over the mandate, the result has largely been small fractions leaving, with little impact on patient care. In many cases, vaccine holdouts scrambled to get their shots in the days before the deadline on Monday, September 27. At the time, Eric Appelbaum, the chief medical officer of St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, told The New York Times that the percentage of hospital workers with at least one dose jumped to 94 percent that Monday, up from just 88 percent the Friday before.

Likewise, Northwell spokesperson Joe Kemp told the Times Monday that a few thousand of their employees rushed to get their shots ahead of the deadline. And some, who initially lost their jobs over being unvaccinated, returned after getting a first dose. Terminated Northwell employees have 30 days to get vaccinated and apply to be reinstated. But Kemp noted that Northwell was “openly recruiting” for newly vacant positions. “The goal was to get people vaccinated, not to get people terminated,” he said.

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