"It's the only way you're gonna return to normal," Pat Bahnken said of the de Blasio administration's suddenly intensified efforts to get more of its workers vaccinated, particularly—and somewhat surprisingly—health-care and uniformed employees. "You don't want young, healthy people to be carriers across the city. From a virology standpoint, you could be running around setting fires all over the city and then running around trying to put them out."
But, said the man who headed District Council 37's Emergency Medical Technicians Local 2507 for nearly 13 years starting in 1999, the easy solution of compelling those who for whatever reason hadn't gotten vaccinated—which included half the members of his old local—by making it a condition of their continued employment, wasn't quite that simple.
"I think," Mr. Bahnken continued, "it's horrible, though, if the city breaks out the baseball bats. These are the people who carried the water for you when the city was burning."
He was referring to EMTs' pivotal role in getting those stricken with the coronavirus during the early days of the pandemic to city hospitals or treating them in their homes, with the risk of their being infected so high that the Fire Department gave them the sole responsibility for handling such cases out of concern that if firefighters responded, they could spread the disease to entire companies that shared quarters.
Mr. Bahnken was speaking July 20, a couple of hours before Mayor de Blasio sent up a flare indicating he would announce the following day that health-care workers at both the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and at the 11 institutions run by NYC Health+Hospitals starting Aug. 2 would either have to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Those who chose neither option would be suspended without pay.
A Tactical Middle Ground
When he rolled out the city's plan in some detail, the Mayor was asked by one reporter whether this wasn't giving workers "an easy out" to avoid vaccination while not being nearly as aggressive as San Francisco, which is requiring all its municipal employees to either be inoculated or tested weekly.
Mr. de Blasio noted that in San Francisco, the program will not be implemented until September in the wake of some early objections. He also contended that for those employees on the fence about the vaccinations, some would decide that getting two shots a month apart was preferable to a weekly nose-swab to check whether they had the coronavirus.
"Others," he added, "may start with the weekly testing and come to the conclusion it's a lot of energy they have to put into it; it's just easier to get vaccinated."
When another reporter asked why cops and Teachers were being exempted, given the extensive contact each group has with members of the public, the Mayor replied that he was considering extending it to them eventually, but "we had to get started in the most-important place."
Left unsaid was that the Police Benevolent Association and the United Federation of Teachers both have enough clout, and enough members likely to object to anything they viewed as compulsory, that politically it made sense to wait on bringing them under the policy. Health-care workers, whose jobs pivot largely on up-close encounters with people, a large number of whom would figure to be vulnerable to infection, were an obvious choice to start the process.
DC 37, which represents many of the affected workers at both H+H and the Health Department, has raised objections to making vaccination a condition of employment, with its chief spokeswoman, Freddi Goldstein, telling the New York Times that "the union does not believe it's the place of the employer to mandate it."
But the different viewpoints among city workers—which accounts for unions' reluctance to seem too eager to require vaccinations, even though many of their older members would welcome it—were reflected late last month. That was when Eddie Rodriguez, the president of DC 37's second-largest local, Clerical-Administrative Employees Local 1549, lamented that 911 operators he represents were being supervised by superior officers in the NYPD who rarely wore masks.
"NYPD management and uniformed employees at 911 and in the precincts have not adhered to masking and distancing protocols in place previously" despite complaints by his local, he said in a statement.
DC 37 is not likely to be publicly airing grievances from some of its members who are vaccinated about co-workers who are not. That doesn't mean such tensions don't exist.
Ed Ott, a labor historian who's a former executive director of the AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council, when asked about the large numbers of health-care workers who have not been vaccinated, said, "I'm extremely disappointed, but I'm not surprised. We're gonna have to educate the hell out of people: it's not some abstraction or conspiracy where people are out to get them" by touting unsafe vaccines."
He said he understood concerns among some city workers that the vaccines have not gotten final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but argued that the risks of getting inoculated were far smaller than those posed from the virus—something borne out by Federal officials noting that among recent deaths from the virus, 99.2 percent of them involved people who hadn't been vaccinated.
"Some people say they won't get the vaccine for three years," Mr. Ott said. Speaking as someone who's at greater risk because of his age, he added, "For some of us, this vaccine seems like a liberating thing. 'Senior' seniors, they seem to get the message."
But he contended that ultra-religious groups, including Orthodox Jews, Pentecostal Christians and some Catholics who got information about the vaccine from sources that were "not necessarily the mainstream," were wary of government machinations.
"Some of these religious people think they're going to put a microchip in them to know where they are," he said.
Mr. Bahnken has heard the same claims, and was even more incredulous that public employees could buy into them. "If anyone believes there's a microchip [in the vaccine], they are not mentally fit enough to work for the city," he said.
Mr. Ott said it was easier to understand why half of firefighters have not been inoculated despite the close contact they have with anyone they rescue from a blaze, explaining, "Firefighters in a crisis situation, generally they are masked in one form or another, Ambulance workers are in a different situation: they're treating patients who were pulled out of the fire, maybe giving them mouth-to-mouth, and then being with those patients in the enclosed area that's an ambulance. You take the EMS guys—it would be more logical if they were standing outside the hospitals saying, 'We're not going in there until we get vaccinated.'"
Mr. Bahnken said that if the city at some point compelled EMTs to get vaccinated, "There may be a legal argument against it, given that these vaccines are under an emergency authorization" from the FDA, with final approval not expected to come until September.
But from a practical standpoint, he said, significantly increasing the inoculation rate is "the only way you're gonna return to normal."
'People Should Get It'
He said his wife had gotten the Pfizer vaccine and his daughter received the Moderna one. Mr. Bahnken got the Johnson & Johnson single injection, which has been the most-controversial one because of serious after-effects for some who received it, but said that he had not suffered any of them.
"When you look at it in the context of all the vaccinations that have been given and the small number of problem cases," he said, "it's no different than the side-effects for someone taking an over-the-counter medication. The logical aspect of it: I think people should get the vaccine."
Mr. Ott said that police officers—just 41 percent of whom have gotten the vaccine—were in a different category in terms of which ones should feel urgency about getting vaccinated, explaining, "I think it depends on the nature of the work they're doing."
There were cops who last summer bristled over criticism that they often weren't wearing masks on the street, countering that during the protests here that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some of those with whom they tussled were not wearing masks and no charges were brought against them for being in violation of the city's masking requirement. Mr. Ott in defense of the cops said that the complaints about their disdaining masks involved outdoor situations, where the risk of infection was smaller.
Another factor may have been that more than a quarter of the uniformed force contracted the coronavirus by mid-spring last year, more than a month before the Floyd protests.
Mr. Bahnken said there was reason to mistrust city officials' motives, contending, "They're trying to protect their employees not out of benevolence, necessarily," but to ward off lawsuits, whether they involved employees contracting the virus or civilians to whom they may have spread it. That might sound cynical, he said, except that last year "they had no problem telling people they had to work after they tested positive for COVID" if they were showing only mild symptoms of the disease.
False Sense of Immunity
And one danger, he said, was that having survived the worst of the pandemic without contracting the virus, some EMTs may be convinced they'll survive if they're stricken, and therefore don't need to be inoculated,
"They believe it's just a cold, it's just the flu, it's not that bad," he said. "And for 90-95 percent of them, it may not be bad, and they'll make a full, speedy recovery. But how many people do those people infect in the meantime?"
Mr. Bahnken also questioned the mentality that would lead some employees to tough it out while focusing solely on themselves. "I should not have to get a vaccine because it may affect another person's life?" he asked, disbelief in his voice.
He continued, "People do have a certain right to refuse some medical treatments. But if your job requires you to treat people who may be vulnerable, in the end, I don't know if that claim prevails [in a lawsuit}. You may be throwing for the end zone in a Hail Mary."
And, Mr. Bahnken said, the employer can counter, "I also don't have to let you come here to work."
New York Presbyterian has already taken that position, although it won't require its first shots until Sept. 1. NYU Langone plans to adopt it once the FDA grants full approval to the vaccines, except for employees who qualify for medical exemptions.
Better to Be Respected
Mr. de Blasio is trying to gently nudge his health-care workers in that direction, and sounds as if he'll be expanding the requirement to other city workers before the summer's over.
Mr. Ott said he didn't think the Mayor was overly concerned about union objections, explaining, "He's not running for anything."
But, he said, "I think he's in a very difficult situation. I think what he's going to try to do is go in the direction of restricting the activities of workers and what they can do if they're not vaccinated: 'You want to do buildings-and-grounds, that's OK, but if you have patient care or you do lab work, you can't do that work if you're not vaccinated.'"
Those who really care about their jobs will decide that holding out against the vaccine isn't worth it. There's a loss of freedom involved, but that's the case in a lot of public-sector jobs under more-ordinary circumstances. And Mr. de Blasio, who in his final months in office knows he can upgrade or diminish his legacy, seems to have come around to the realization that it's more important to safeguard the health of those who work for the city and the people they serve than to make a last stab at endearing himself to employees.
That's what being a leader is about.
"None of this is easy," Mr. Ott said. "I don't envy the Mayor."
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