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COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate Paused For Healthcare Workers As Some Hesitate To Roll Up Scrub Sleeve

A federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers is on hold -- for now. While the majority of hospital employees have gotten the shot, in the Lubbock area, not every provider is rolling up their scrub sleeve.

The crowd at Maxey Park, near Covenant Children’s hospital, grew on a chilly Sunday afternoon. Protesters wore patriotic attire as they lined up along a busy thoroughfare. They held signs with messages like “freedom over fear” and encouraged passersby to honk in support.

The protest, organized by a group against vaccine mandates called Health Freedom of Lubbock, drew hundreds of supporters. That included many healthcare workers, who were easy to spot as they wore scrubs or white coats.

Registered Nurse Donna Hemlow was part of the crowd.

“I'm out here because I think it should be our choice to get the vaccine,” she said. “We shouldn't be forced to.”

Hemlow has been a nurse for decades and said she enjoys her job. But as the deadline for a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers neared, she was not sure what her future held. She hoped to receive a medical exemption, though, those are limited.

She said she thought about just getting the shot.

“But then I thought ‘no, this is an experiment,’” And it’s not just me. I know a lot of people say it’s science, but it’s not. This is something new.”

The three coronavirus vaccine formulas are authorized by federal regulators because research shows they are safe and effective. Still, millions of Texans and over half of Lubbockites are not fully immunized.

In an effort to increase the vaccination rate, the federal government instated multiple vaccine requirements tied to employment. That included a mandate enforced by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for healthcare workers employed by facilities that receive funding from the office. If facilities were not in compliance with the mandate, they risked losing that money, which is essential for keeping many healthcare centers afloat.

Originally, workers had to receive the first shot of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine series or a one-dose injection by Dec. 6 and be fully immunized by Jan. 4. There was no option for workers to get tested regularly for the coronavirus as a substitute.

Texas was one of over a dozen states to challenge the mandate in court. Days before the deadline for workers to get their first shot, a Louisiana District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction that blocked the mandate nationwide.

The mandate is still on the books, but not being enforced, and will continue to make its way through the court system.

While this vaccine requirement is on hold, Dr. Steven Berk said rules like these are common in hospitals. He listed vaccines for hepatitis, measles and other diseases as requirements for healthcare workers.

“Of course, the reason for that is because it's not really to protect them so much, although that's important, too,” Berk said. “It’s to make sure they don't give any of those diseases to patients.”

Berk is the executive vice president for clinical affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. Beyond the politicization of the pandemic, he thinks this particular mandate became so controversial because of one medical principle: autonomy.

“In general, that principle says you respect the wishes of a patient,” Berk explained. “If a patient doesn't want a certain treatment, then they're not going to get that treatment.”

But Berk said autonomy has to be in balance with public health and what is best for the greater good. He highlighted misinformation as another factor complicating getting people vaccinated.

“I would say, for the most part, misinformation has done better than really getting out the true facts about this pandemic,” Berk said. “And so people are getting to make decisions based on information that's incorrect.”

University Medical Center Nurse, Tate Leonard, said the decision was easy for her. She is new in her career and works on a critical care floor. She got the Pfizer vaccine as soon as she could at the beginning of the year.

“I am very pro-vaccine,” Leonard said. “Yes, it could have some side effects. But doesn't all medicine, you know?”

Leonard said she has no problem with the mandate and thinks it will give patients peace of mind.

“I wouldn't feel safe knowing that someone that was taking care of me, in a setting such as the hospital, when I'm really, really sick, wasn't protected against all of these viruses,” Leonard said.

Still, she said she understands some of her co-workers feel differently about the shot requirement.

“But I think it's for the right reasons,” Leonard said, “and it's to protect others who can't protect themselves.”

Three days before the original deadline for healthcare workers to get the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, University Medical Center, where Leonard works, reported 94% of its staff is in compliance with the mandate.

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Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.