COVID-19 vaccination rates soar among state's health care workers
COVID-19 vaccination mandates adopted by Connecticut hospitals have resulted in all but a tiny percentage of health care workers in the state being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus disease.
“It’s fantastic news,” Paul Kidwell, the Connecticut Hospital Association’s senior vice president for policy, said Friday, putting the vaccination rate among all hospital workers in the state in the “high 90s.”
“I think you’re seeing that people, when provided with information and education — and as a condition of employment — do the right thing,” he said. “We began this process because we knew a highly vaccinated hospital staff is good for the safety of patients and colleagues. We knew we were starting with a high baseline and operating in a state where the people had embraced the vaccine.”
In a span of about three-and-a-half months, vaccination rates among Hartford HealthCare and Yale New Haven Health employees have risen from less than 80% to more than 99%, according to the health systems. As of Thursday, only 176 of the more than 27,000 people on Hartford HealthCare’s payroll had been suspended for failing to get fully vaccinated, some of whom may yet decide to do so, Dr. Ajay Kumar, the system’s chief medical officer, reported during a virtual news briefing.
Employees have until Oct. 14 to comply with the mandate or be terminated.
Not included in the number of unvaccinated employees are those who have been granted exemptions from the mandate, either for medical or religious reasons. Hartford HealthCare handled about 1,300 exemption requests, more than half of them on religious grounds, and had granted 877, or about two-thirds, of the overall number, Kumar said.
Those granted exemptions, he said, will have to adhere to weekly COVID-19 testing protocols.
Yale New Haven Health similarly reported this past week that it had received more requests for religious exemptions than for medical exemptions, and had granted 449 of the 841 religious-exemption requests submitted, an approval rate of 53%. The 10-member COVID-19 Religious and Strongly Held Personal Belief Exemption Review Committee ruled on the requests.
In an interview, committee member Kendall Palladino, director of spiritual care at Yale New Haven Hospital, discussed the process, which starts with an application explaining the requester’s claim.
The committee’s job, Palladino said, is to balance respect for the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom against the need to keep the community safe, an endeavor that can involve protecting views that are unpopular.
“We need to make sure beliefs are legitimate,” he said.
Requests generally fall into one of three categories, the first being those that object to the use of aborted human fetal cells during the testing of the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, a practice followed in the making of many medicines.
“This is an incontrovertible fact,” Palladino said. “What is a myth is that the vaccines contain aborted cells. That’s not a fact.”
Committee members, who sometimes meet one-on-one with a person requesting an exemption, seek to educate when they encounter mistaken beliefs.
“We don’t grant based on myths," Palladino said. "There’s enough misinformation going around that there is a need for education."
He said the Catholic Church has accepted that vaccine creation is “somewhat problematical” but believes it’s important for people to protect their neighbors by getting vaccinated. He said the church's position is that it’s better to take the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, whose production is more directly related to fetal cell cultures.
“The Diocese (of Norwich) is following the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church which teaches that there is no moral prohibition for any Catholic to receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine,” Wayne Gignac, a diocese spokesman, wrote in an email. “Further, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has made it clear that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine can be received by Catholics in those cases where there are no alternative vaccines available. Pope Francis has taught that reception of the vaccine fulfills a moral imperative to protect the health of our neighbor and the common good of society. Those who do not wish to be vaccinated have a moral obligation to do whatever is reasonable and required by local authorities to avoid becoming infected and transmitting the virus to others.”
A manager, chaplain and attorney
Another category of religious-exemption requests involves objections to vaccines in general, Palladino said, a belief that one’s body is a temple to God. When raised in connection with the COVID-19 vaccine, such an objection can be problematic if the person seeking an exemption previously has been vaccinated against the flu or received some other vaccine.
“A case like that would require some further discussion,” Palladino said. “Some people have had changes in their beliefs over COVID, too. ... That’s why at a minimum we need a manager, a chaplain and an attorney on the committee to determine whether something is really a religious belief."
“Some people believe that a vaccine is a governmental control," he said. "That’s a legitimate belief, and it could be religious if it’s a sincere belief.”
A third category of requests, a kind of catchall, includes requests that cite interpretations of scripture and certain religious traditions that uniformly object to vaccines, Palladino said. In such instances, the committee must determine whether the request involves a religious or ultimate belief, as opposed to a political position or personal preference.
“‘I don’t like vaccines’ is not a sufficient reason,” he said.
Regarding religious exemptions, Gignac, the diocesan spokesman, wrote: "A Catholic whose conscience is properly informed on the subject and with prayerful reflection can arrive at a personal decision to refrain from receiving the vaccine. As such, their request is really an affirmation of the person's own conscientious objection, informed by their personal faith and personal circumstances. Since no person can speak for or judge the conscience of another person, only the person who arrived at such a decision can write a letter affirming their conclusion."
Palladino said he's been pleasantly surprised by the extent to which people's religious beliefs are important to them, as evidenced by their willingness to share private matters and deeply held beliefs with committee members.
"With all the difficulties many of them have faced," he said, "to see how much growth has occurred during the terrible devastation of the pandemic is impressive."