A hospital finds an unlikely group opposing vaccination: Its workers
By Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura
Their movement started discreetly — just a handful of people communicating on encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Signal. But in just days, it had ballooned tenfold. And within two weeks, it had turned into a full-blown public protest, with people waving picket signs to denounce efforts to push them to receive coronavirus vaccines.
But these were not just any vaccine resisters. They were nurses, medical technicians, infection control officers and other staff who work at a hospital in Staten Island, which has the highest rate of COVID-19 infection of any borough in New York City.
Outside Staten Island University Hospital last week, as passing cars and fire trucks honked supportively, employees chanted, “I am not a lab rat!”
The aggressive opposition to the vaccine and even regular testing at a hospital in New York City — the epidemic’s onetime epicenter — shows the challenges of reaching the unvaccinated when some of the very people who could serve as role models refuse vaccination.
Some medical workers at the Staten Island hospital are so fiercely opposed that they call themselves “The Resistance,” after the rebel faction in “Star Wars.” They are defending what they view as their inherent rights, and their leader is gathering hospital workers from other states in an attempt to create a nationwide movement.
Scientists and medical professionals point out that those who refuse vaccines are potentially endangering the lives of patients. “Vaccinations are critical to protect our patients, our staff and protect the general community,” said Dr. Mark Jarrett, chief medical officer at Northwell Health, which is the state’s largest health care provider and runs Staten Island University Hospital. “It’s a tough issue, but it’s our professional obligation to always maintain that whatever we do, it’s for the safety of our patients.”
He said he is hopeful that imminent federal approval of the Pfizer vaccine will persuade some of the unvaccinated to get shots.
As the delta variant, the highly transmissible version of the coronavirus that now makes up almost all new cases in the United States, drives a surge throughout the country, public health officials are struggling to boost vaccination rates among front-line medical workers. Among the nation’s 50 largest hospitals, 1 in 3 workers who had direct contact with patients had not received a single dose of a vaccine as of late May, according to an analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Health.
The Staten Island protests started last Monday when Northwell Health began requiring unvaccinated staff to get weekly coronavirus tests by nasal swab or risk losing their jobs. On the same day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all health care workers across the state would be required to have at least one dose of the vaccine by Sept. 27, with limited exceptions for those with religious or medical exemptions.
Northwell says that its mandate was put in place to protect patients. A spokesperson said that the company was aiming to get 100% of its staff vaccinated and has used a variety of tactics to nudge hesitant workers, like offering them spa days. Before the pandemic, the hospital system encouraged flu vaccinations and required employees who were not vaccinated for flu to wear masks when among patients.
Some protesters, dismissive of scientific data and wary of mandates they say infringe on their civil rights, say they are willing to lose their jobs. Other workers said that they were considering moving out of state, perhaps to Florida, where hospital requirements are looser and the number of deaths and hospitalizations has steadily risen since June.
Across New York, the majority of the state’s more than 600,000 health care workers are vaccinated, but many are not. To date, 75% of the state’s roughly 450,000 hospital workers, 74% of the state’s 30,000 adult care facility workers and 68% of the state’s 145,500 nursing home workers have been fully vaccinated, the state said.
Modes of persuasion ranging from free cash to burgers to rides on the MTA failed to persuade vaccine refusers, leading some hospital systems to take a harsher approach, which in turn has spurred a backlash. Last month, the largest health care union in the country held a rally after the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital system mandated that workers receive at least one shot of the vaccine by Sept. 1.
Participants in a recent focus group at Staten Island University Hospital about how to persuade employees to get vaccinated said they were told by officials that about 60% of the staff had been vaccinated. Northwell Health did not confirm the figure but said that about 77% of the employees are vaccinated across Northwell’s 23 hospitals in the city and the state.
The de facto leader of the hospital employees is John Matland, 36, a CT scan technician who is a good friend of Daniel Presti, the manager of Mac’s Public House bar on Staten Island, which last year gained notoriety for defying virus restrictions.
When indoor dining was banned in the area because of high infection rates, the bar continued to serve local customers inside, prompting the police to arrest Presti and to padlock the bar.
Matland has coalesced a community of workers who said they feel singled out because testing is not required for vaccinated people, even though they are still able to get infected and transmit the virus. Some also argue that they do not need the vaccine because they previously had been infected with the coronavirus. (Experts have said that prior infection does not fully protect people and have advised everyone to get vaccinated.) Early data shows that breakthrough infections are rising because of the delta variant, but experts say that does not mean that the vaccines are ineffective. The available data shows that unvaccinated people are still much more likely to contract COVID-19, while vaccines drastically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from the virus.)
Matland participated in the focus group aimed at understanding what punitive measures could motivate unvaccinated employees to get the shots. The options listed were being docked pay during leaves of absence if exposure requires quarantine, becoming ineligible to participate in employee appreciation barbecues or losing points that staff are allowed to cash in for gift cards and products. Matland said he chose “none of the above.”
Even small defections could put a strain on the Staten Island hospital. Staten Island, a Republican enclave, had the highest rate of hospitalizations from COVID-19 of any borough in July.
On Thursday, he was suspended without pay.
Nelly DeSilvio, 43, a phlebotomist, said that half of the 30 people in her department were unvaccinated. “If we all left, this would be huge. We are already short-staffed now.”
Opposition has spread outside Staten Island, including at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, another Northwell hospital, where protests were held this week.
Sandra Lindsay, director of Critical Care Nursing at the hospital on the Queens/Long Island border and the first person in the United States to be vaccinated, has been trying to persuade 25 co-workers out of 250 in her department to get the jab.
“I don’t vaccine-shame,” she said. “People should have a right to express what they feel, but our profession as health care workers is rooted in science, and we should practice what we preach.”
Although the aversion to vaccination often falls along ideological lines or people’s attitudes toward vaccines in general, the influence of the training that health care workers receive is overlooked, said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a researcher at New York University who has surveyed unvaccinated health care workers.
“Medical professionals are often trained to assess the situation on an individual basis and made a recommendation, and so the notion that there should be a universal health policy that applies to all people and that is determined by the government rather than a medical professional on a case-by-case basis is contrary to the way they are trained to work,” she said.