Across Long Island, residents are celebrating as vaccination rates rise and life returns to normal.
But inside many of the Island's nursing homes and adult care facilities, there's little reason to let down one's guard. In too many of these places, staff vaccination rates remain stubbornly, disturbingly low, with some facilities still hovering around 40%. The same is true for some hospital staff, too.
So far, nothing — from education campaigns to incentives like gift cards — has worked. It's time to do more.
Earlier this month, the New York-Presbyterian hospital system announced it will require the COVID-19 vaccine for all who work in its facilities, including employees, contractors, students and volunteers. Northwell Health took a different tack, mandating the shot for new employees, volunteers and students, and saying it will consider a mandate for existing employees after full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval comes.
Those moves, along with the recent decision by a federal judge to uphold a Houston hospital's vaccination requirement, have sparked an intense debate over whether health care facilities should mandate the vaccine.
SOME BALK AT THE SHOT
Thankfully, most doctors have gotten their shots. An American Medical Association survey this month found that 96% of practicing physicians had been vaccinated. Local hospitals say the numbers are similarly high here. That speaks loudly. But it's not filtering down to nurses, nursing assistants and other staff. New York-Presbyterian's systemwide vaccination rate is 70%, even though nearly every doctor is immunized.
Keep in mind: These are the people for whom the vaccine was available earliest. They are the ones who worked so hard during the height of the pandemic, who saw the damage COVID-19 did, who experienced the tragedy of losing patients and colleagues and who still work with our most vulnerable residents.
Yet, five months later, too many are still holding off.
So, a mandate is now on the table.
WHY THAT MATTERS
Too often, those who oppose vaccination, or don't want to get the shot, think they're not a danger to anyone. But they are.
Some people, due to allergies or specific conditions, can't get the vaccine at all. And the shot may not be as effective in those who are immunocompromised, including transplant patients, children and adults with cancer, and those with autoimmune diseases. Imagine if they're treated by an unvaccinated nurse who brings COVID-19 to their bedside. High resident or patient vaccination rates don't solve the problem, especially because new, vulnerable residents enter every day. Hospital and nursing home workers refusing to protect themselves directly endanger patients they've pledged to help.
Beyond that, variants, especially the worrisome Delta variant, pose an even greater risk that only vaccines can combat.
Those opposed to a mandate note that the vaccines have only FDA Emergency Use Authorization. But that EUA came after a thorough vetting process that showed the vaccines are safe and effective.
The powerful Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union went further, saying a mandate "is not, nor will it ever, be the answer." That blanket rejection is neither helpful nor true. When the editorial board requested time with an 1199 representative to discuss the issue, a spokesman responded that the union was "really busy" because of the New York City mayoral primary and had no one available to speak, an unfortunate deflection from a union that should prioritize the health and safety of its members and their patients.
In Houston, meanwhile, more than 100 employees sued a hospital system over its vaccine mandate. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, rightly blasting the lead plaintiff's contention that the vaccine is dangerous and her horrific comparison of the vaccine requirement to experiments conducted by Nazis during the Holocaust.
Those arguments are despicable. But instituting a mandate does come with legitimate questions. With far more Black and Hispanic individuals refusing the vaccine, there's a concern that firing unvaccinated workers could disproportionately affect far more minority employees. Then there's the thought that nursing homes might have particular difficulty finding a sufficient number of vaccinated certified nursing assistants and registered nurses. The notion of a fully-vaccinated workplace, combined with the state's recent reform efforts, especially its move to put 40% of a home's funds into staffing, should make those facilities enticing workplaces.
PROTECTION IS A MUST
Patients and their families shouldn't have to wait for their health care environments to be completely safe. They shouldn't have to fear those who are caring for them or their loved ones.
That's why Long Island's health care facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, should follow New York-Presbyterian's lead.
Unless there's an immediate and significant upsurge in vaccination, the time has come for a mandate. And union and state officials should publicly support such a requirement. Those facilities already require other vaccines. Mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for those in health care is a logical, scientific step.
And our health care workers, who care about their patients and public health, should embrace a mandate, and get the shot — now.
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Editorials are written by members of the editorial board, a group of opinion journalists whose views on the issues of the day reflect the longstanding values of Newsday.