ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — While local hospitals are drafting contingency plans over staffing shortages, county officials and health leaders say critical health services will not be impacted.

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza hosted a coronavirus briefing Thursday afternoon to update residents on the county’s ongoing pandemic response efforts. The county leaders were joined by the Chief Medical Officers of University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Regional Health, Dr. Michael Apostolakos and Dr. Robert Mayo.

The county executive said Monroe County was on a bit of a “downswing” in terms of new cases. Last Thursday, the county reported 213 new cases and a seven-day average of 193 new cases per day, compared to 183 Thursday and a 164 seven-day average of new cases per day this week.

“Although we’re on a bit of downswing, we continue to be classified as an area with high COVID-19 transmission,” Bello said. “Vaccination is the best tool that we have; it’s safe, it’s free, and it works.”

“We are vaccinated against COVID not because someone told us to, but because we know it’s the best way to keep our colleagues safe and our families healthy,” Dr. Mendoza said. “The vaccine is FDA approved, making it the same as any other vaccine we would take. We know all the vaccines are safe in preventing severe illness and death against COVID-19.”

The county executive said some 5,000 more Monroe County residents received their first dose of the vaccine this week, and with booster shots on the horizon, the county is ramping up its operations to ensure it can handle a surplus of demand if and when it should occur.

“Our teams have scouted locations for new sites for booster shot clinics,” Bello said. “We are waiting for new info, but we re now looking to hire new staff for vaccine clinics, with flexible hours and pay from $17.50 to $28 per hour.”

Earlier Thursday, URMC announced some changes to the hospital system’s operations due to an ongoing staffing shortage, including a pause on elective procedural scheduling at some facilities as well as temporary closures at others.

However, the county executive said significant health care procedures will not be impacted.

“There will be no pause in critical health care,” Bello said. “Yes there might be some inconvenience, but our health care system ha1s been grappling with a shortage of staff, but I can assure you that our critical health care system will not be impacted.”

“We are not in a crisis,” Dr. Mendoza said. “If you are ill, call your doctor. If you’re in a death situation, to to an emergency room.”

The state’s vaccine mandate requires all health care professionals to be vaccinated by Monday, September 27. If health care workers do not have at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, they could lose their job.

“I’m saddened because some colleagues won’t join us,” Dr. Mendoza said about health care workers who have not been vaccinated yet. “There has been ample time to learn the facts. I hope those who need to will think long and hard before they leave this noble profession.”

Dr. Apostolakos URMC’s current staffing shortage isn’t related to the mandate.

He says hospitals in the Finger Lakes and nationally already face staffing shortages because of rising demand for clinical services, some health workers retiring or choosing other employment after 18 months of COVID stress, and fewer recruits choosing health care over other career options. 

“UR Medicine has been recruiting aggressively for months to fill vacant positions, and we will intensify those efforts as the mandate takes effect until our hospitals are fully staffed,” Dr. Apostolakos said. “In the meantime, we will share resources as a system, taking steps such as temporarily sharing staff between hospitals as needed to minimize impacts on patient care.”

Among the changes, UR Medicine Labs will close some patient service centers temporarily, Strong Memorial Hospital will close hospital beds in several units, and Highland Hospital postponed a “small number” of scheduled elective procedures beginning Monday, September 20.

Once the mandate going into effect, officials say URMC may temporarily close UR Medicine Urgent Care in Farmington and introduce a two-week pause in scheduling new elective procedures at Strong beginning September 27. Additionally, the UR Medicine Urgent Care in Spencerport temporarily closed this week as the hospital system navigates contingency plans based on “best and worse-case scenarios.”

Patients at URMC hospitals may face longer waiting times for appointments as new contingency plans based on vacancy levels are currently being worked on, officials say. Meanwhile, health leaders say vaccination remains the best way out of this pandemic.

“We have made contingency plans based on best or worst case scenarios, but our numbers change every day,” Dr. Apostolakos said. “At this point it would be premature to say one area over the other. I can say that we will be able to provide the services needed.”

Despite the preparations, officials say most URMC health care employees are vaccinated, including 99% of all medical staff and 91% of all employees across all six URMC hospitals who were either or partially vaccinated as of September 20.

For Rochester Regional Health, it’s a wait and see approach, but elective surgeries are being scheduled as normal.

“We are not stopping elective surgeries at Rochester Regional at this time,” Dr. Mayo said.

Dr. Mayor said there have been several hundred exemption requests on the vaccine mandate, currently awaiting approval for Rochester Regional Health. A federal judge recently extended the halt on the vaccine mandate due to religious exemptions. That extension is enacted through October 12, and applies only to the religious exemption.

Regarding ongoing protests every Monday at Strong Memorial Hospital for people speaking out against vaccine mandates, the county executive said he was disappointed to see health care workers subjected to these demonstrations in the face of all the pandemic-fueled difficulties they are already facing every day.

“I need to add an important message: Our health care workers, our front line in our fight against COVID for the past 18 months — they are tired, stress, and deserve our gratitude,” Bello said. “Health care workers see protest and anger, and to me that’s disappointing. On behalf of Monroe County, I want to say thank you, and I want you to know that you are our heroes. You are the only way we will defeat this pandemic.”

Regarding COVID-19 transmission in schools, the county executive said schools aren’t the original source of spread.

“Most of those in schools who are getting infected are doing so outside of school facilities,” Dr. Mendoza said. “We are working to provide school surveillance testing.”

Watch the full briefing

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.