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Erie County officials continue mask & vaccination mantra as hospitals let go unvaccinated workers

Buffalo General Medical Center
Kaleida Health
Buffalo General Medical Center is one of several hospitals where non-essential elective surgeries are being put on hold amid the latest COVID surge.

Several local hospitals are suspending non-essential elective procedures in response to hospital capacity levels, COVID numbers and staffing issues. They’re also letting unvaccinated personnel go. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz addressed this, and the limited number of elected leaders openly opposing the county’s mask mandate, during his latest COVID briefing.

Catholic Health reported sending an estimated 180 termination letters to employees Tuesday who were unvaccinated for COVID and had failed to meet a required deadline to receive at least one dose of the vaccine. The move came one day after Kaleida Health announced it had terminated 100 people who, after a court eliminated their ability to avoid the shot on the grounds of religious exemption, did not meet the hospital system’s December 5 deadline for vaccination. That was in addition to 100 others previously terminated by Kaleida for failure to meet vaccination requirements.

“I've said all along, I think vaccine mandates in the healthcare setting makes sense, especially as it pertains to nursing homes,” said Poloncarz. “And remember - we're also talking about nursing homes, not just the hospitals - that many of the illnesses and deaths that were caused among nursing home patients last year were brought in by the staff who were positive, and were sharing it with the residents that they were taking care of because they didn't know they were positive. They were asymptomatic.”

The terminations at Kaleida and Catholic Health represent an estimated two percent of the workforce at both systems.

Under an emergency order announced by Governor Kathy Hochul during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, local health officials could restrict and postpone non-essential elective procedures if staffing levels and hospital capacities were adversely affected by rising COVID numbers.

Kaleida announced it was already taking such action, postponing non-essential procedures at Buffalo General Medical Center and Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. Catholic Health was doing the same at Mercy Hospital and Sisters of Charity Hospital in Buffalo, and at Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston.

Cancer treatments and screenings are deemed essential under the state order, thus operations at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center are unchanged. They, too, had to address the issue of unvaccinated personnel this week, but on a much lower scale.

A spokesperson for Roswell Park says four people were terminated Tuesday because they failed to meet state vaccination requirements, while “sixteen other unvaccinated personnel await disciplinary action and may face termination,” as per the provisions outlined in their union agreement.

Brooks Memorial, UPMC Chautauqua and Wyoming County Community Health System were also postponing non-essential surgeries. East of Buffalo, Rochester Regional Health confirmed it was following state guidelines and postponing non-essential elective surgeries beginning Thursday, December 9. The system, which operates centers in Rochester, Batavia and in three communities along the St. Lawrence River region, also confirmed it was parting ways with many personnel.

"Unfortunately, we had approximately 350 employees in the Rochester and St. Lawrence regions who made the personal choice to decline vaccination and leave our health system," the system said in a written statement. "The employees represent approximately 200 full-time equivalents. While we know the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, we understand that getting the vaccine is a personal decision.

"As an integrated health care delivery system, we are able to coordinate and deploy resources to areas of need. We are also strengthening and expanding our workforce with the hiring of new employees. Our primary focus is the safety and well-being of our patients and employees, and to ensure we continue operating safely and effectively. We remain ready to deliver care and strongly encourage those in need not to delay seeking medical attention."

Back in Erie County, Poloncarz, along with Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein and Dr. Thomas Russo of the University at Buffalo, were repeating their ongoing message to get vaccinated and wear masks during this latest surge of COVID infections. Since the day before Thanksgiving, the county has mandated the use of masks in indoor public settings.

Some area elected leaders have openly expressed their opposition to the mandate. On Monday evening, the Grand Island Town Board became the latest municipal opponent to the mandate, passing a resolution stating so. They joined elected officials in the Town of Marilla, Town of West Seneca and the mayor of the Village of Williamsville in openly opposing the mask mandate.

Legally, they cannot overrule the county’s health rule.

Poloncarz said sanitarians remained busy keeping an eye on establishments to ensure customers and businesses were complying. He also suggested that his office has received feedback from establishments where elected leaders have opposed the mask mandates, claiming their business has actually been hurt by that stance.

“I know that to be the case in Marilla, Williamsville, and West Seneca, where businesses from those communities reached out to my office and said ‘We're wearing masks. We're requiring masks, because we know it's the right thing to do. And we're disappointed our elected officials said otherwise, because now people are calling saying I'm going to cancel my event that we had scheduled at your restaurant, because we don't want to be around people who aren't wearing masks,’” he said.

Poloncarz also stated that for those elected officials who have gone on record in opposition to the mask mandate, many more have expressed their support. He named Town of Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa and Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joe Emminger as two such examples.

"There may be a few out there who are criticizing it but the vast majority have supported it and they understand why," Poloncarz said. "Because it protects against the further spread of COVID-19, which means it protects against further death."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.