- Peter Paul
- BBC World Service
The United States may have played a major role in developing the first vaccine against COVID-19, but it is now in the midst of a major dilemma over its use. Should people be forced to take it?
From banning restaurants and sporting events to losing their jobs, proof of vaccination has become a huge problem, especially in recent weeks in New York.
And what happens there could affect the rest of the world as vaccination rates rise and countries wonder how best to continue fighting the epidemic.
“I’m not entirely against the vaccine,” Crisleidy Castillo says.
“I’m just saying I don’t want to take it now because I’m breastfeeding.”
The 27-year-old special education teacher worked at a school in New York City until a few weeks ago. She was placed on indefinite leave of absence, along with thousands of other Department of Education employees who did not receive a single dose of the Covid vaccine.
This order has since been extended to all municipal employees, who must make decisions or lose their jobs.
“I don’t think it’s safe because not enough research has been done,” Crisleidy adds, even though the Covid vaccines approved in the United States have passed medical tests and are also approved in dozens of other countries.
She is now unpaid and says that if she accepts a job offer from a private school (so she can go back to work), she will take a 60% salary cut and lose health insurance.
Crisleidy applied for a vaccine exception, but the initial request and her appeal were denied.
Exemptions are only allowed if they are listed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He recommends vaccinating breastfeeding mothers and says there is no medical evidence that this is unsafe.
However, Crisleidy still doesn’t want to get vaccinated: “I’m being penalized for just a personal decision I made. Not because I’m selfish, but because I want to protect my daughter.”
The Department of Education says, “Vaccines are our most powerful tool in the fight against COVID-19. This decision is on the right side of the law and will protect our students and staff.”
In a legal case related to the vaccine mandate, Department of Education attorneys established the city’s position that people do not have the right to “educate children without being vaccinated against a serious infectious disease. A rational, yet decisive public health measure.”
Nearly 10,000 New York workers find themselves in a situation similar to Crisleidy’s. But city officials say there has been a huge jump in the number of workers vaccinated after mandates are in place.
The number of first responders getting vaccinated jumped from 74% to 87%, after the rule change, while in the fire department it rose from 64% to 77%.
Despite union warnings that there could be a shortage of workers as unvaccinated people are given indefinite leave, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said there has been no disruption to city services.
“This is my message: Every mayor in America, every American governor, every company CEO in America, spreads a vaccine mandate and it will make everyone safer and help us end the era of the virus once and for all.”
The only person who doesn’t want that to happen is Douglas Keriman.
He was affected by the vaccine mandate that New York state authorities put in place for all health care workers.
“I’m not one of those antivirals, I’m not against every vaccine out there,” he says.
“I’m not one of those people who say the virus is fake, I’ve seen it and seen the deaths.”
Douglas lives in Lancaster, western New York, and works as a nurse in the local intensive care unit.
His work hangs in the balance as judges consider a lawsuit brought by fellow physicians asking authorities to consider religious exemptions from the statewide vaccination mandate for physicians.
“As much as they say they have studied vaccines, and I believe them, there are no long-term studies of them.”
In addition to concern about the newness of vaccines, Douglas, a Baptist Christian, also has a religious objection to immunization devices, based on the use of embryonic cells in their development.
Cells were derived from aborted fetuses decades ago. However, there are no fetal cells in any of the vaccines and many large religious groups that oppose abortion, such as the Catholic Church, still recommend getting the vaccine.
If the legal process for obtaining a religious exemption fails, Douglas will likely not be able to work in New York State.
“I have a wife with special needs. She doesn’t work so it’s all on me.”
“If I lose my job, I might lose everything. It’s my livelihood, you know.”
His only option would be to travel about an hour and a half to neighboring Pennsylvania for work — a state that does not currently have a vaccine mandate for doctors.
“Actually, I’m thinking of moving after all this. I hate to say this because my family and my parents are here, but what am I going to do?”
New York Gov. Cathy Hochhol endorsed the policy to authorize the vaccine, saying, “We believe it has worked. It has had a huge impact on our ability to protect people, especially healthcare professionals.”
State attorneys have repeatedly opposed attempts to add any religious exceptions to the mandate.
One medical professional who thinks differently about both vaccine and authorization is Dr. Calvin Sun. He works as an emergency medicine physician assistant in New York City.
At the height of the pandemic, he says, he saw enough to “cause lifelong nightmares.”
He does not think getting the vaccine puts him at greater risk of contracting the virus.
“The benefits of the vaccine do not outweigh the risks,” he says.
“Not all critically ill patients (at work) who have contracted coronavirus have been vaccinated.”
Sun believes the authorities were right to use the vaccine mandates.
“I think it’s a shame we’ve come to a point where we need authorization. Because, from a medical point of view, we always want to guide the patient to a choice where they choose to do so for the benefit of the community and their dear ones.”
But he believes that just as people need to wear seat belts and not text while driving, “we have to give up some freedom for safety.” And in the case of the Covid pandemic, this means “getting the vaccines to make sure the health care system is not overwhelmed and that places are cleared for patients at risk.”
He also believes that other countries can follow New York’s lead: “We can show the world that (the mandate) is not as bad as people fear.”
Many places around the world also have strict rules on vaccination against the coronavirus.
In Europe, Latvia decided to allow companies to fire workers who did not agree to be vaccinated or work from home.
In Asia, parts of Indonesia have made vaccination mandatory for all citizens. Costa Rica became one of the first Latin American countries to demand that civil servants be vaccinated.
With tens of thousands of people around the world still dying from the coronavirus every week, many other countries will have to struggle to make tough decisions about how to confront vaccine hesitancy.
Even if it means taking the stand: ‘No vaccine, no job’
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