As the city applies pressure to increase vaccination rates among its health-care workers with a mandate that they either get vaccinated or take weekly coronavirus tests, unions representing those employees argued that vaccinations were just “one piece of the puzzle” to lower COVID rates.
Two of the unions representing workers in the city’s health-care system, District Council 37 and the New York State Nurses Association, have opposed mandatory coronavirus vaccinations as a condition of employment. Several private hospitals across the city and state, including New York Presbyterian, have moved to implement such requirements.
A Sense of Urgency
But with the city facing a spike in COVID cases due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, city officials are looking to quickly vaccinate as many New Yorkers as possible.
To increase vaccination rates in municipal hospitals, where about a third of staffers remain unvaccinated, Mayor de Blasio July 21 announced a new COVID safety policy, effective Aug. 2: NYC Health + Hospitals staff and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene clinical employees will be required to show proof of vaccination or opt into weekly testing.
“I think [the policy] is absolutely fair,” said Carmen De León, president of DC 37’s Local 768, which represents thousands of H+H staff including Respiratory Therapists, Physician Assistants and Public Health Advisers. “My personal view, whether or not I’m president of Local 768, is that it should be up to every individual whether or not to get vaccinated. I think weekly PCR testing is a fair trade-off.”
Ms. De León, a Registered Respiratory Therapist at Harlem Hospital, added that she had not yet been vaccinated because of allergies to certain drug ingredients, and said she was still considering whether to get inoculated.
Can't Afford to Lose Staff
The union leader also called on hospitals to reconsider vaccine mandates because many facilities were already facing staffing shortages.
Sharon Braxton, president of DC 37’s Local 436, which represents Public Health Nurses and Public Health Epidemiologists in the city Health Department, noted that there were other methods that could be used to lower the COVID positivity rate.
“Many of my members are looking at utilizing all tools. Mandated testing is one tool,” she said. “[Personal protective equipment], social-distancing—all public health interventions are other ways to try to stop this spread. That’s where our focus is as Epidemiologists.”
Ms. Braxton pointed out that the city managed to decrease its COVID positivity rate last year thanks to people wearing face-masks and social-distancing well before mandated testing or vaccinations were available.
NYSNA, which represents about 42,000 nurses, including 8,500 Registered Nurses at NYC H+H, also called for “a multi-pronged approach” to control the spread of the virus.
Other Key Components
“Vaccination is an important piece of the puzzle in ending the COVID-19 epidemic, but it is not the only piece,” said NYSNA President Nancy Hagans. “Based on our front-line experience battling the pandemic for more than a year, NYSNA nurses believe we must focus on education and vaccination in under-served and under-vaccinated communities, limiting everyone’s exposure by wearing well-fitting masks, maintaining social distancing, and improving ventilation in all workplaces and indoor spaces.”
In a recent survey of NYSNA members across the state, 83 percent of those who responded had been vaccinated. But the union has adamantly objected to hospitals implementing mandatory vaccinations for staffers “while simultaneously lobbying to relax PPE standards, frivolously contesting COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation claims and OSHA citations, and actively cutting corners on health and safety protocols,” said the union’s executive director, Pat Kane.
“The way to build back trust and incentivize further vaccination among health-care workers is to finally meet our broader health and safety demands, not to threaten us with job loss,” she added.
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