These healthcare workers would rather get laid off than get vaccinated

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Deborah Conrad, a medical assistant in western New York, and Simmone Leslie, a switchboard operator at a Queens hospital, both worked risky long hours during the pandemic. But now the two are prepared to lose their jobs rather than meet the state’s deadline on Monday for healthcare workers to get vaccinated.

By defying the order, they are resisting a step that public health experts say is critical to saving lives and ending the pandemic. Although they each cite different reasons for their decisions – Ms Leslie said her employer rejected her request for medical exemption; Ms Conrad referred to the side effects of vaccines she claimed to have seen, but which deviate from scientific consensus – their reluctance embodies a conundrum facing New York.

Experts called the mandate a clear way for healthcare workers to prevent the spread of new waves of the virus and to persuade skeptics to get vaccinated. And healthcare systems say the plan is crucial to ensuring the safety of patients and staff.

The Westchester Medical Center Health Network, where 94% of the system’s 12,000 workers are vaccinated, called the mandate “an essential part of sustaining our mission,” in a statement released on Sunday.

But a vocal minority working within the healthcare system are itself skeptical – and some, like Conrad, have jeopardized the plan, even fighting the mandate in court.

They see their work as a guarantee of credibility, and ordering their bosses and the state to make a choice – get vaccinated or get fired – as betrayal.

“We were all traumatized, vaccinated and unvaccinated,” said Ms Conrad, who works at United Memorial, a hospital in Batavia, a small town halfway between Rochester and Buffalo, and felt respected by her colleagues there. . “It’s very difficult for the same people who raised me to this level now to see me as a dangerous person.”

The conflict is dividing hospitals, where most workers are vaccinated and want their colleagues to be. The nurses union supports the mandate – around 95% of members are already vaccinated – although some members complain that its deployment was too rushed. But unions representing support workers, including nurse aides, orderlies, cafeteria workers and others, opposed it. If many of these workers leave or are made redundant, their duties may fall to nurses who are already taxed.

The disagreement also tests the government’s power to enforce compliance with public health measures; The New York mandate and the state’s refusal to allow religious exemptions are the subject of at least two lawsuits, including one by Ms. Conrad and five other plaintiffs.

Yet staff members choosing to leave their jobs because of their tenure could also create immediate practical challenges: many nurses and other health workers are exhausted or traumatized by the pressure of the pandemic; others have been lured by high salaries to become “travel nurses,” crisscrossing the country to fill shortages of emergency personnel.

Governor Kathy Hochul at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn on Sunday strongly opposed the idea of ​​religious immunization exemptions, urging worshipers to be “apostles” of the vaccine in order to “keep more people alive” .

“God answered our prayers”, she told the congregation. “He created the smartest men and women – scientists, doctors, researchers – he made them come up with a vaccine. It’s from God to us and we have to say, ‘Thank you, God, thank you!’ “

“There are a lot of people who don’t listen to God and what God wants,” she said as a gold necklace spelled “Vaxed” shone on her chest.

Last week, a federal judge granted a stay of 17 healthcare workers, including doctors, nurses, therapists and resident physicians who sued the state, extending a temporary restraining order until Oct. 12 for the execution of the warrant against them. Their lawyer, Stephen Crampton, said the deadline should apply to all health workers, but the state disagrees.

“There is that coercive element that is hard to ignore in this whole emergency,” said Mr. Crampton, senior counsel for the Thomas More Company, a conservative law firm that deals with religious freedom cases, said. He did not want to identify the plaintiffs but said many were Catholic and some Protestant.

Pope Francis and the leaders of many major religions have approved vaccination warrants.

The plaintiffs, like other healthcare workers opposed to the warrant, argue that the state is ignoring the fact that some of them have already had Covid-19 and believe they have natural immunity.

But scientists say a previous infection does not fully protect people, and available data shows that even though breakthrough infections in vaccinated people increase, vaccines still significantly reduce the risk of infection, hospitalization and death. .

State vaccination figures show that as of Wednesday, 16 percent of some 450,000 state hospital workers, or about 70,000 people, were not fully immunized. The data shows that 15 percent of staff in nursing facilities qualified and 14 percent of workers in adult care facilities are also not fully vaccinated, which represents about 25,000 other workers.

There is no clear data on the number of those who have absorbed unfounded anti-vaccination ideas through word of mouth, social media or politically-charged hard-wired news; how many did not manage to be absent to be vaccinated; and how many have personal health concerns.

But what it adds is angst on all sides.

“No one should be placed in these types of positions,” Leslie said on Sunday.

She has received other vaccines, she said, but she thinks the Covid-19 vaccine would be risky for her, even though the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, an advocacy group, widely recommends the vaccination for people. people with his disease. Her medical dispensation having been rejected, she requested a religious dispensation.

Ms Conrad, a medical assistant for 18 years, said she didn’t understand why the protective gear she always used to protect herself and patients – including before the vaccine was available – wouldn’t be. not enough now. But she also said she would not have weekly tests unless vaccinated workers were required to do so as well: instead she would sell her house and move out.

“It’s not that I don’t want to do my job anymore,” she said. “I no longer have the right to do my job.

Greg Serafin, a registered nurse at Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo who sued the state health department in state court over the warrant, said on Sunday he expected to lose one’s job. He said he plans to be put on unpaid administrative leave for 30 days and then be fired for just cause.

Anyway, he said, “I’m not taking the vaccine.”

New York’s experience with the mandate and its application could inform how other states are proceeding. So far, neighboring states have instituted less stringent requirements.

New Jersey and Connecticut have stopped making immunization conditional on employment in most health care settings. In New Jersey, workers in public and private health care facilities have the option of getting tested at least once or twice a week if they are not vaccinated as part of a ordinance entered into force on September 7.

Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Connecticut face fines of up to $ 40,000 a day if their employees do not receive at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine by September 7. There are no civil penalties for hospitals, but many already require vaccines for employees.

Dave sanders contributed report.


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