While the incident is an isolated one for hospitals nationwide (so far), the facility's mass staff exodus could signal an alarming trend that will hurt pregnant people in marginalized communities most.

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A labor shortage at one upstate New York hospital will force some pregnant people to re-think their labor and delivery plans in the coming months. Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville, N.Y. says that it will stop delivering babies on Sept. 24 after several employees resigned over the state's vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

An image of an empty delivery room at a hospital.
Credit: Getty Images.

Last month, now-former Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all employees in New York hospitals and long-term care facilities had to get at least one dose of the vaccine by Sept. 27. Those employees do not have the option to test regularly instead.

Now, Lewis County General Hospital is staring down a looming staff shortage. Already, 30 hospital system employees have resigned, including six nurses from the maternity ward. And 165 hospital employees have not yet received their first dose of the vaccine.

"The number of resignations received leaves us no choice but to pause delivering babies at Lewis County General Hospital," Gerald Cayer, the Lewis County Health System chief executive, said at a news conference this past Friday.

Cayer hopes the pause is temporary.

Although startling, one (somewhat) silver lining of the situation is that Lewis County General Hospital does not deliver many newborns per year: In 2017, they reported 235 total births, the fifth-lowest number of total births of any hospital in the state reporting data, according to New York State's Department of Health. The nearest hospital with a labor and delivery unit, Samaritan Hospital, is about 23 miles away (a 32-minute drive) and delivered more than 1,600 patients in 2017, far more than Lewis County General Hospital.

Driving a few extra miles to Samaritan Hospital might be doable for some expecting parents. But it's critical to note that not all pregnant people have the same access to multiple healthcare facilities near their homes. A 2020 report by the March of Dimes found that 2.2 million women live in a maternity care "desert" (1,095 counties) that does not have a hospital offering obstetric care, a birth center, or an obstetric provider. These areas often have higher rates of poverty than those with access to maternal health care.

Lewis County General Hospital appears to be the first hospital experiencing so many resignations that it's unable to deliver babies. It remains to be seen whether this will become a trend, though it would be problematic, particularly for Black and Native American parents, if it did.

Hospitals Are Overwhelmed with Rising COVID-19 Cases—and That Affects All Kinds of Care

Getting vaccinated vastly reduces a person's likelihood being hospitalized from a COVID-19 infection, according to CDC data. And overwhelmed hospitals impacted by COVID-19 surges are also having to make adjustments, including to pregnancy care. Parkland Hospital in Texas, which averages more than 10,000 newborn deliveries per year, had to transfer pregnant patients to other facilities because of the virus surge and nursing shortages. Parkland hospital did not have a vaccine mandate at the time, saying it was awaiting full FDA approval to implement one.

The FDA has since fully approved the Pfizer vaccine. On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that workers at healthcare facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds must be fully vaccinated. He hopes the new mandate moves the needle on vaccinations. But , according to U.S. Dept. of Health data released in June, only one-third of workers at the nation's 50 largest hospitals with direct access to patients had not received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Biden did not mention whether facilities could accept religious exemptions. The New York mandate initially allowed for them, but state panel under new Governor Kathy Hochul voted unanimously to remove religious exemptions. A judge recently rejected a lawsuit by a pair of Long Island nurses that the inability to receive an exemption on religious grounds violated their First Amendment rights. More litigation is likely coming.