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‘Get vaccinated or lose your job’: Tuba City hospital workers question COVID-19 vaccine mandate

‘Get vaccinated or lose your job’:  Tuba City hospital workers question COVID-19 vaccine mandate

TÓNANEESDIZÍ

With a Nov. 9 deadline looming, nearly 90 health-care workers at Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation are risking their jobs by not getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

TCRHCC may soon fire 87 employees who’ve chosen not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to unvaccinated employees who came forward.

Out of fear of retaliation, the employees asked for anonymity to discuss the the vaccine mandate.

The dissenting employees say TCRHCC will fire health-care workers who refuse to get vaccinated.

“You have to be fully vaccinated or you’re subject to termination at that point (Nov. 9),” said one non-Native male employee. “What makes Tuba City (Regional Health Care) unique is they’re providing only limited exemptions – no religious exemptions, no conscientious objections, and there is no alternative.

“It’s either get vaccinated or lose your job,” he said. “They’re going to fire me.

“With some people, in order to feed their families, are going to be coerced into taking it because they’re not people who can unilaterally move and leave the area,” he added.

Another non-Native male employee said all the hesitant, unvaccinated employees have been threatened with their jobs and coerced into taking the jab – or they’ll be fired.

The second employee said the Food and Drug Administration approved only one of the three COVID-19 vaccines, the Pfizer-BioNTech, even though vaccine skeptics remain uncertain.

He said the vaccine is widely available. The other two vaccines are Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen.

The FDA on Aug. 23 approved the first COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which will be marketed as “Comirnaty.”

Pfizer-BioNTech continues to be available under emergency use authorization, including for individuals 12 years of age and older.

A normal FDA approval on a drug means that data on its effects have been reviewed by the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, and the drug is determined to provide benefits that outweigh its known and potential risks for the intended population.

The 1992 Prescription Drug User Fee Act established a two-tiered system for review and priority review. The standard review has a 10-month goal and priority has six months, according to the FDA.

“They’re (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) not disclosing in full, (the) overview of what’s happening with the vaccines and just kind of pushing it on people without allowing them to have the choice,” the second employee said. “It (COVID-19 vaccines) has a lot of risks.”

The second employee added that TCRHCC also mandated the annual seasonal flu vaccine alongside the COVID-19. Now, TCRHCC’s vaccine-resistant workers are trying to find a way out.

Online forum gets 268 asking for choice

An online petition forum on change.org drew 268 signatures asking TCRHCC to allow freedom of choice to receive or decline the COVID-19 vaccine.

The details of the petition suggest that numerous health-care providers and staff members are at risk of losing their jobs at TCRHCC.

The petition reads: “These employees include doctors, surgeons, nurses, technicians, and essential staff from various departments throughout the hospital who were at the front lines managing care of patients affected by COVID-19 since the beginning of this pandemic.

“They continue to serve the community as they await being terminated from their positions on (Nov. 9, 2021). These providers understand the important of vaccinations and (its) role in minimizing the severity of the disease.

“However, these vaccines are being publicized as being safe and are being mandated without adequate time to conduct through research for associated risks of long-term complications.”

The dissenting employees are exploring exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine, said the dissenting TCRHCC employees.

Major religious denominations and institutions are essentially unanimous in their support of the vaccines against COVID-19. The employees say they are requesting exemptions to the requirements on religious grounds.

“A lot of people have their own personal religious beliefs … that all of the vaccines were made and developed with the use of aborted fetal products (derived from the human fetuses electively aborted decades ago),” said the first employee.

A Pew Research Survey conducted in February 2021 found that 36% of Protestants and 22% of Catholics were unwilling to be vaccinated; subgroup analyses found that 45% of white evangelicals and 33% of black Protestants were unwilling.

“There’s a lot of other personal religious beliefs but right now some of the thinking is that the (COVID-19 vaccine) is not very effective,” said the first employee. “Even the basic definition or people’s thoughts of what a vaccine does is to prevent disease.”

Both the first and second employees say the COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent the disease, they only decreases its severity.

“I’ve been very culturally sensitive … and working with Natives that way,” said the first employee. “But my hope … is that, hopefully, they (TCRHCC leadership) can rescind the (vaccine) mandate.

“Right now, every (COVID-19 vaccine) is still under (emergency use authorization) release, which based on that is experimental,” he added. “One of the things (people) worry about is being experimented on. Yet it’s a huge experiment.

“One of the things that’s not being talked about very openly (are) the complications of the vaccine itself,” he said.

Hospital rules

The Biden administration made the COVID-19 vaccine requirement for many health-care workers a central part of its effort to vaccinate the country. Many health-care workers seem to be complying with vaccine mandates.

Nearly 100% of TCRHCC workers are completely vaccinated, said Lynette Bonar, CEO at TCRHCC.

“Our staff is 97% vaccinated,” Bonar said. “We have given our staff three months to obtain their vaccine. We are only allowing exemptions that meet CDC guidelines.

“All services will continue as usual,” she said. “Staff that decide not to receive the vaccine have their own personal reasons.”

The dissenting employees estimate that the TCRHCC population has herd immunity either through prior infection or vaccination, and the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.

Herd immunity is when a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease through vaccination or prior illness. This makes its spread from person to person unlikely, according to the CDC.

Public health experts estimate that herd immunity requires around 80% to 90% of a population to have COVID-19 immunity.

“So, if you were to say, ‘herd immunity’ (in the) hospital, (TCRHCC’s) already achieved that,” said the second employee. “Why are they threatening people’s jobs at this point when they’ve (TCRHCC leadership) already done that? And they are still getting people who are coming out sick that are actually exposing others that are already vaccinated.”

The dissenting employees say the TCRHCC leadership needs to allow not only employees but also people living in the Tuba City Service Unit to voice their opinions and concerns.

“They need to not censor anyone,” the second employee said. “They need to have an open meeting as a (TCRHCC) board of directors. Anyone should be able to contact them, and they need to be open with the community.

“I can’t believe that a Navajo Nation hospital – we’re supposed to be culturally sensitive and allow people to have the right and be very careful of what we’re pushing,” he said. “And they’ve (leadership) done it the fastest.”

Vaccine unknowns

While the news of high efficacy is riveting and has exceeded expectations, several public health experts say they’re concerned that the public is getting an incomplete picture about the vaccine’s success that doesn’t reveal fault-finding information such as which groups of people are protected.

Bonar said according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Native Americans are 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than non-Natives.

And that’s why COVID-19 vaccines are important in assuring patients can be treated and not overrun with COVID-19 patients and running out of inpatient beds, including access to emergency services.

“This is working as we have seen very few COVID-19 patients admitted in the last five-six months and very few vaccinated patients,” Bonar explained.

“The manufacturing of the vaccines in record time helped Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation catch up in our response to the virus for now,” she said. “And it’s helping us manage the inpatient admissions and emergent responses on a day-to-day basis.”

Bonar added that COVID-19 immunization of health-care workers is endorsed by every reputable health-care organization in the U.S.

Many other hospital systems have already mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for its employees to ensure staff and patients are protected from infection.

“Our only concern is the safety of our staff and our patients,” Bonar said.

What’s next

If the dissenting employees are terminated on Nov. 9, there will be staff shortages and that could compromise patient care. This would mean people may have to wait to see a doctor.

“We anticipate that some staff members from various departments will choose not to get vaccinated,” Bonar said in a follow-up interview with the Navajo Times. “We are planning appropriately to make sure that our services to the community are not interrupted.”

With 1,000 employees, TCRHCC is the largest hospital employer in Western Navajo: 70% are Native American and 30% are non-Native.

Bonar said because 97% of TCRHCC employees are fully vaccinated, this means that around 970 employees are helping to control the spread of the virus.

But the dissenting employees who don’t get vaccinated or don’t receive an exemption will be in violation of the hospital’s employee health policy and are subject to being terminated for cause.

“They’ve (leadership) been sending a lot of letters to these people who are not taking the vaccine,” said the second employee.

Letters to those employees state that the employee acknowledges termination on Nov. 9, and a medical panel will evaluate religious or medical exemptions.

“And they don’t even tell you who the medical panel is,” the second employee said. “You can’t ask that question. And the (TCRHCC) board of directors are well-respected … but they’re non-medical personnel. And medical people are not allowed to ask questions in the hospital.”

The Navajo Times asked a member of the TCRHCC board for an interview, but the board member declined and asked the reporter send questions to Bonar.


About The Author

Krista Allen

Krista Allen, based in Kaibeto, is the assistant editor of the Navajo Times.

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