‘Walked out with my head held high’: Religious exemptions end for health care vaccine mandate

Coronavirus

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Once the clock struck midnight Monday, health care workers no longer were able to cite a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Gov. Kathy Hochul made the announcement, with a week leading up to the deadline: All health care workers with this exemption must have gotten their first dose by Monday morning, or risk losing their jobs.

You may be wondering, what changed since the Utica judge ruled it unconstitutional?

Steve Modica, employment lawyer with Modica Law, says there has yet to be a full hearing on the lawfulness of religious exemptions. The back-and-forth between courts is over immediate relief until a full hearing.

“The Utica judge said, ‘while we await a full hearing on the merits, we are not going to allow the state to refuse to allow the religious exemptions,'” Modica said.

That was in October. Fast forward a few weeks: another federal judge in New York overrules the hearing.

“And so that decision went to an appeals court called United States Appeals Court of the Second Circuit, and they ruled that until there could be a full discussion on the merits, they would allow the state to continue to prohibit religious exemptions,” Modica said.

Now, health care workers who have filed these exemptions will have to choose to get the first dose by Monday or risk losing their job.

Modica says employees have a few options.

Get the vaccine or see what accommodations your employer might offer. This could be working remotely, tele-health.

For Krista Michael at Rochester Regional Health — her decision was already made months ago.

“I worked my last shift on Friday and I walked out with my head held high — I’m not defeated, this isn’t over. My life isn’t over,” Michael said. “A chapter has come to a close, but a new one’s about to open.”

Michael said her bosses walked her into their office a day after the announcement.

“They wanted to offer one last time, ‘are you sure you wouldn’t reconsider taking it, so you don’t have to leave,’ and I said ‘No, my decision is made, so tell me what you need to tell me.'”

According to Michael, it wasn’t a matter of resigning, it was a matter of getting fired.

“I worked the rest of the week like I said I would from the beginning, that I would work with all my heart, soul and strength until my time was up,” Michael said.

Michael says her reasoning to not get the vaccine has a lot to do with personal choice and the commitment to her beliefs.

“Ive made a decision, decided what I will do what I won’t do, that’s who I am and I’m standing by it,” Michael said.

Epidemiologists who study the data say that vaccines are safe and dramatically reduce the risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19. Despite their assurance, Michael says her mind is made up and she’s not alone.

“I have other friends who may be an MRI technician, that’s the only skill, and if she can’t work in the healthcare setting as an MRI technologist, she’s gonna work at the post office,” Michael said. “It’s a waste of a health care professional.”

Modica believes litigation process is a slow one. And it could be months before a decision is made, if this goes to United States Supreme Court.

“It’s hard to say, certainly the court as a result of recent appointments appears to be leaning in more of a conservative fashion, so you might expect that they might take a harder look at this than previous courts might,” Modica said.

Michael says she has a few irons in the fire for what could be next, but she plans on remaining a nurse in the health care setting.

UR Medicine told employees exceptions could be made for remote workers, but not for those who work in “direct clinical roles.”

Full statement from URMC:

Yesterday, the State Department of Health informed all New York hospitals and nursing facilities that employees previously granted religious exemptions to the state’s vaccine mandate would need to receive a first-dose of COVID vaccine or valid medical exemption by November 22 to continue working. Facilities are required to have a process for providing reasonable accommodations to employees with religious exemptions who are able to work outside the “covered entity.”

Today UR Medicine emailed all employees who have been working under religious exemptions since the state mandate took effect Sept. 27. Some work in remote locations where the exemption can be accommodated, some work in direct clinical roles where accommodation is not possible, and some work in roles where potential accommodation is being evaluated. The letters encouraged employees to consider being vaccinated before next Monday, at on-site clinics being offered this week or elsewhere in the community.

We are hopeful that a large number of employees now working under a religious exemption will choose to accept the vaccines that have been proven safe and effective in more than 20,000 colleagues at UR Medicine and hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Shortly after URMC, Rochester Regional Health also issued a statement, saying in part:

We’re complying with the mandate and have nothing more to say at this time.

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