The Vaccination Fight on the Nursing Home Floors

Ideas and Issues
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February 14, 2021

Pearl River       Nursing homes have been ground zero of the Covid-19 killing zone. People with dementia are twice as likely to be infected by the novel coronavirus. Tens of thousands of nursing home workers in the US have also died in the pandemic. This is a worldwide problem, but especially intense in America making these workers and the home residents in their care the top priority across the country to receive the early doses of the vaccines now available. Local 100 United Labor Unions represents nursing home workers in the Shreveport and Napoleonville area as well as other care workers in greater New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette. We have distributed tens of thousands of PPE masks, shields, and isolation gowns in these areas to protect our workers, often because of delays and other issues in the facilities, but also supplementing their efforts.

I talked to one of our stewards in north Louisiana on Wade’s World to see what progress we were making in protecting our members and their clients. On the radio, we called our steward “Mary Smith” to make sure she could talk freely without any fear of retaliation by the management company if she said anything critical, since some of them have non-disparagement clauses. Mary has worked at her home for more than a decade and is a certified nursing assistant, so she’s right there at the firing line. What she had to say was both moving in terms of the heroism of our workers and their solidarity and disturbing when it came to attitudes about the vaccination.

Mary was enthusiastic about the union’s response to pandemic protection, because having PPE that we had received from #NOLAPPELastMile gave them “safe passage,” as she called it, to their homes and with their families. I was most shocked to hear that the home put workers on 14-day quarantine procedures when they were exposed without pay sometimes, despite provisions that allowed them to do otherwise, making her home an exception in our experience. Our workers were having to band together to try and come up with some money to support their co-workers, even when they were living close to the bone themselves.

When I asked about the vaccination process. She reported that the clients were overwhelmingly receiving the vaccine, though often without full approval, but the workforce was hesitant, and that included herself. She didn’t like being pressured. She didn’t trust the vaccine. The workforce was virtually all African-American. She wasn’t sure she would be ready even in a year. After the interview the Local 100 staff convened to discuss how to get more trusted sources in the communities where our workers live to improve the vaccination rate, but once the subject was broached, we realized our leadership was being called into question in this area.

Certainly, we’re not alone. “A national survey of certified nursing assistants late last year found that nearly 72 percent didn’t want to be vaccinated,” according to the Washington Post. Ohio reported 60% of CNAs said no. SEIU Local 1199 in Maryland and DC reported that 80% of its members were saying no. In Miami, a health system reported that half of its said were “No’s” and 15% were “never.”

This is a national communication problem where we need lots of help, leadership, and community voices in order to build enough trust to have people feel comfortable and safe in protecting themselves.