WATERTOWN — In less than three weeks, a new vaccine mandate for health care workers could drastically change the landscape of health care not only in the north country, but across the state.
Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced in August that all health care workers in New York state, including staff at hospitals and long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, adult care, and other congregate care settings, would be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday, Sept. 27, or lose their jobs. The orders requiring all health care facilities to implement policies mandating employee vaccinations come with very limited exceptions. The mandate will potentially affect hundreds of north country health care workers in the near future.
As the deadline looms, and health care workers become more anxious for their voices to be heard, a “Protest for the Right to Medical Freedom” was held Wednesday afternoon on the sidewalk outside of Samaritan Medical Center. Protesters stood out with homemade signs with phrases like “My Body My Choice, I Call the Shots,” and “Coercion is NOT Consent — Give Us Options, Not Ultimatums,” and chanted for all to hear, making their concerns known.
Despite how quickly organized the protest was, with many who are unhappy with the mandate unable to attend, dozens were able to make their voices heard, including Samaritan Patient Care Coordinator Rhea A. Pelletier, a registered nurse.
“It’s simply the fact that the New York State Department of Health has decided that they can force us to have a shot that some people are not comfortable with, for very good reason, or lose our livelihood,” Mrs. Pelletier said as to why many were protesting. “Everybody knows what it means to lose your job — as nurses, health care workers in general; you don’t have money for rent, you don’t have money to pay your mortgage, you can’t pay back your student loans. It’s truly devastating, and that’s why we had to speak up because it’s going to be devastating to our community, to those individuals who just will not be coerced into having this shot.”
She noted that after the devastation will come the aftermath of the whole health care system being thrown into chaos even more than it currently is.
As for Samaritan specifically, Mrs. Pelletier predicts that it will affect the hospital greatly to have to lose so many staff members due to the mandate, citing that the hospital is already understaffed.
“Sometimes we’re two or three nurses short and it’s almost unbearable, people are wanting to leave the profession,” she said. “And now you’re going to lose a good number of nurses and other ancillary staff, and it’s just gonna throw it into complete chaos; people will not receive good care, more staff will leave, the hospital ratings will go down — it’ll be exponential, the difficulties.”
Just from those she has contact with directly, Mrs. Pelletier said there are about 70 other nurses and staff members who feel they are being coerced and do not wish to receive a vaccine, noting that everybody has their own reasons and rationale whether or not to get one of the available vaccines.
For instance, there are pregnant nurses who have had difficulty getting pregnant and are considered to be of advanced maternal age who have already had complications in the past. For the Pfizer vaccine specifically, they’ve read the warnings, and the fact that it hasn’t actually been tested on pregnant women and there’s no safety page regarding efficacy and safety in pregnant women, yet they are being told that even pregnancy is not going to be considered as a medical exemption, is truly alarming, Mrs. Pelletier said.
“The bottom line is that it’s purely and fundamentally unconstitutional; that is the biggest problem that I find in general that people have with this mandate,” she said. “Specifically health care professionals, we have a lot of experience, a lot of education, we’re science based; we’re not conspiracy theorists, that’s not what this is about. We’re questioning the safety, the efficacy, the long term effects. [...]The fact that we choose not to be guinea pigs, that’s enough.”
Mrs. Pelletier noted that many who were involved with Wednesday’s protest are already vaccinated and chose to participate because they support their coworkers in wanting a choice and the ability to make their own medical decisions.
“We’re very well supported by most of the people, specifically at Samaritan, who do believe in the vaccine, who’ve taken the vaccine, and who also believe in constitutional rights,” she said.
Another potential protest is being planned for sometime next week to involve more who are concerned about the mandate, which provides few medical exemptions and no alternative options to the unvaccinated.
According to Leslie M. DiStefano, director of communication and public relations for Samaritan, the hospital has been advocating for staff to get vaccinated, along with every community member that’s eligible, but it respects individual choice as well. Because of that, she said Samaritan has been working with local and state officials to make the point that the unintended consequence is that Samaritan and other hospitals like it could see a current workforce shortage made worse if people choose to leave the health care profession due to this mandate.
“That will definitely have some repercussions; there is a workforce shortage across the nation and locally, and if you have another factor in there that could make that worse, that would be very bad for local health care systems, not just Samaritan,” she said. “With the COVID cases right now on the rise, it’s ever important to have staff to take care of patients and staff to take care of our COVID population. It’s really important right now and it’s always important, but I think even more so during the pandemic.”
Ms. DiStefano said that currently, 82% of medical center employees are vaccinated, along with 78% of Home Health, 71% of the Keep Home, and 73% from Summit Village, and Samaritan is continuing to look at what the unintended consequences of this mandate might be. Just in the few weeks since this mandate was announced, Samaritan has seen the number of employee vaccines go up, Ms. DiStefano said.
“I think that until we get a little bit closer, we won’t really have any definitives on how this will impact us because we just won’t know until we receive those letters of termination or resignation, we won’t really know where we land,” she said. “I think that we’re going to work very hard up to that point with advocacy efforts and educating our staff, offering vaccine clinics, doing what we need to do to prepare ourselves, but we don’t expect any answers from the Department of Health or any changes, unfortunately, probably until much closer to that September 27 deadline.”
Brylee K. Chipley has been with the housekeeping department for the medical center for three years and is now in jeopardy of losing her job at the end of the month.
“I feel like it’s wrong for them to try to force us to get the vaccine. I personally was kind of on the fence about it a little bit when they first came out with it; I wanted to try to see exactly how the vaccine went, if anybody had any effects, what the outcome would be, if it actually did any good,” she said. “[...] Telling us that we had a deadline and having to get it just kind of set it all off. I don’t feel like they should be able to mandate us to get it or not have a job.”
Mrs. Chipley has been looking at other jobs and while she doesn’t want to have to be unemployed, she said she feels like there is no choice when having to decide between getting a vaccine everybody’s not necessarily comfortable with, or losing your job.
“Personally, I worked all through the pandemic last year, and we didn’t have a vaccine at that time, so I don’t understand how it affects us now doing our job. It doesn’t affect our work ethic if we get the vaccine or not, we’re still there to do our job,” she said.
She shared that she knew of a handful of people from day, evening and overnight shifts who agree that receiving the vaccine should be a choice and said they will leave and find another job or be terminated at the end of the month. She also mentioned about 10 nurses who have said they do not wish to receive the vaccine and are willing to quit because of it.
“It just sucks because they don’t want to have to throw their career that they spent so long working for down the drain because of something like this, because it’s gonna be hard for them to find anything else in the medical field, especially if they’re pushing the mandate on people that do work in the medical field,” Mrs. Chipley said. “It’s a struggle for them to have to try to find a job that’s not something that they want to do, when all they want to do is take care of the patients.”
Though workers are ready to leave Samaritan if need be, they know the mandate is not coming from Samaritan, but rather it is something that has been handed down by the state that the health care system must comply with.
“We do really respect individual choice no matter the mandates that come down, we’re trying to work with our staff,” Ms. DiStefano said. “We really hear them and we’re advocating on their behalf, but at the end of the day, we respect and believe in the vaccine, and we’ve been encouraging all of our employees along the way to get vaccinated, so I think it’s a very delicate balance. But I do firmly believe that Samaritan, in and of itself, we respect individual choice. And we are working hard with the state and other officials to make sure everyone’s voices are heard.”