NJ abandons COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers

NJ abandons COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers

Melissa Alfieri-Collins has never received a COVID-19 vaccine.

The registered nurse refused to be vaccinated after the pandemic, granted a religious exemption from Jersey Shore University Medical Center, where she worked in the oncology unit.

But in October 2021, when Neptune Hospital said unvaccinated workers had to be tested regularly, he quit, believing the policy was unfair.

Alfieri-Collins wants to be a nurse again, especially as the state grapples with an acute shortage of nurses, but not if she’s forced to be immunized against the coronavirus.

I have thousands of nurses who would be ready and willing to reenter the workforce but are simply not willing to be vaccinated against COVID at this point, said Alfieri-Collins, who is advocating on behalf of some 5,000 nurses as part of the Coalition of the New Jersey for choice of vaccination.

Now the 46-year-old Holmdel resident and her colleagues can get back to work.

On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order lifting COVID-19 vaccination requirements for health care workers in New Jersey, effective immediately.

Today’s order aligns our state with recent updates to federal requirements and reflects our different circumstances now, versus in recent years, Murphy said in a statement. My administration will continue to take responsible steps to adjust New Jersey’s COVID-19 policies and guidelines accordingly.

Healthcare facilities include hospitals, long-term care facilities, psychiatric and specialty hospitals, residential long-term substance use disorder treatment facilities, family planning sites, and community-based adult and pediatric day care programs .

The states pivot comes after the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced last week that it will roll back its rule requiring most employees of certified health care providers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Unvaccinated nurses and other health care workers have long argued that the pandemic is over and it was time to get them back to work, especially as the nurse shortage in New Jersey has reached crisis levels.

The New Jersey Hospital Association, the trade group that represents state hospitals, told NJ Advance Media on Friday that it, too, is open to revising the policy.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last month released a final rule that officially lifted the vaccination requirement for COVID-19 health care workers in CMS-regulated settings, NJHA President and CEO Cathy Bennett said in a statement. . As a general practice, aligning state and federal guidelines is a best practice that provides clarity and consistency for healthcare professionals.

At this stage of the pandemic, NJHA believes aligning New Jersey’s requirements with the CMS Final Rule should be considered.

The change comes as other states reevaluate their policies amid critical demand for health care workers.

New York State announced in May that it was seeking to end vaccine requirements for its healthcare employees. In a statement, the New York Department of Health cited the changing pandemic landscape and evolving vaccine recommendations as reasons for its decision.

New Jersey ranks among the 10 states with the most vacant registered nurse positions with more than 13,400 openings, according to Adzuna, a job posting site. Nearly a third of its nurses have left bedside care over the past three years, according to a survey conducted by Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the largest union of nurses in the state.

And the crisis is only expected to escalate, experts say.

Nurses say the shortage has affected the quality of care, though hospitals deny it. But health care systems have spent millions of dollars on travel nurses and overtime to fill shifts.

Holy Name CEO Michael Maron recently said Teaneck Medical Center is spending $2.5 million a month on travel nurses. Before the pandemic, he was spending $200,000 to $400,000 in a bad year.

RWJBarnabas Health alone laid off 118 employees in October 2021 for missing the COVID-19 vaccine deadline. Other health care systems have also laid off employees, while countless workers like Alfieri-Collins have fired themselves.

In fact, about 30 percent of U.S. health care workers weren’t vaccinated as of September 2021, according to an analysis of more than 2,000 hospitals by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

But an overwhelming proportion of the population, about 96%, have at least some antibodies to the coronavirus from both infection and vaccine, according to infectious disease experts. It’s one reason guidelines across the nation have started to change, experts say.

Natural immunity was a moot point until some studies found it offers lasting protection, although the CDC says vaccination is a safer, more reliable way to build immunity.

Alfieri-Collins, for example, had COVID-19 in March 2020 and again in March 2021 and is tested regularly for antibodies.

She does not consider herself an anti-vaxxer, although she advocates complete autonomy when it comes to vaccinations in healthcare and not just for the coronavirus.

I think there should always be a choice no matter where you work, the nurse said. I think when it comes to medical intervention of any kind, we have to have a choice.

Alfieri-Collins, for example, doesn’t think nurses should be forced to receive any vaccinations, even against measles. But she said she’s not against all vaccines. She has taken a stand against the COVID-19 shots because she doesn’t believe they have been sufficiently studied, she said.

I was fully vaccinated for all other vaccine-preventable diseases, the nurse said.

Alfieri-Collins says rolling back the policy is just the first step hospital systems and the state need to take. After all, these nurses continued to work, tackling a life-threatening virus long before there was a cure or even a basic understanding of how it spreads.

I think the hospital system should offer a sincere apology and reparations to nurses and other health care employees, she said. They have been mistakenly forced to suffer the loss of income and their careers after giving their all during the height of this pandemic.

I mean, we went into fire.

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Spencer Kent can be reached at skent@njadvancemedia.com.

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