While nurses from Schneider Regional Medical Center were outside Wednesday protesting a vaccine mandate for employees, work continued inside to retrofit the hospital’s fifth floor with additional bed capacity for COVID-19 patients.
Like their counterparts at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital, the nurses demonstrating along the highway said they were uncomfortable taking a vaccine for which the side-effects have not been documented long-term and, without revealing specifics due to healthcare privacy laws, spoke about a few cases in which they saw severe symptoms manifest in patients after they received their second vaccine dose.
The data show the vaccine to be far safer than COVID-19. An unvaccinated Schneider employee died of COVID-19 on Tuesday, officials said during Wednesday’s V.I. Hospital and Health Facilities Corporation district board meeting. Forty-one Schneider employees have tested positive for coronavirus as of the end of July. Sixty percent of Schneider staff are fully vaccinated.
Locally, COVID-19 is confirmed to have killed a minimum of 41 Virgin Islanders to date and put 294 Virgin Islanders in the hospital, 203 of those at Schneider.
Hospital officials confirmed Wednesday both hospitals have seen zero COVID-19 fatalities or hospitalizations among fully vaccinated Virgin Islanders and zero hospital admissions due to effects of the vaccine. Until enough Virgin Islanders have been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, the virus will continue to spread around the territory. In setting local vaccination goals, Gov. Albert Bryan has echoed the consensus among health experts that this will require 80 percent or more to get vaccinated.
Putting in place a mandate that ends in the termination of employees who don’t take the vaccine “isn’t fair,” many of Wednesday’s demonstrators said, particularly if local employees who have put in decades of service and know the needs of patients within the community are being “traded” for traveling nurses.
Demonstrators said they were not against vaccinations in general, but wanted the choice to decide whether to take this one or not without facing the possibility of losing their jobs.
“I am here in support of the staff nurses because I have witnessed our staff nurses over the past year and a half, since COVID came into being, take care of the Virgin Islands family,” Schneider house supervisor Cherokee George said. “I do not think that is fair now that you come out with a vaccine and say those who don’t take the jab are going to be terminated. I don’t think it’s fair to get rid of people who have been loyal to this hospital for years now. When they get rid of the local nurses, the people who know you and love you, and they bring in people who don’t know you, do you think our patients will be getting the same care that the local nurses have been given?”
The loyalty and dedication of the nursing staff are not in question for acting Schneider CEO Dr. Luis Amaro, who said in an interview with the Source that a contract between the Health Department and Pafford Medical Services was meant to give the existing staff, which has continued to work around the clock, a break from the long hours.
There was a nursing shortage before the pandemic, but the Pafford contract was executed as clinical staff became even thinner since its onslaught.
“Right now, we are severely understaffed with the level of admissions that we have, and without the additional level of help, our nurses are going to be even more tired,” said Amaro, who described the current level of admissions at Schneider as the highest he’s seen in his tenure.
Amaro supplied additional data at a St. Thomas-St. John district meeting of the Health and Hospital Facilities Board Monday afternoon, saying Schneider has 71 permanent full- and part-time registered nurses, nine traveling nurses and 25 registered nurses from Pafford. Work continues to develop enhanced recruitment packages for registered nurses and other critical staff, and separately, Amaro said the hospital is looking again at the possibility of pay raises for its existing nurses, who are unionized and subject to the conditions of a collective bargaining agreement.
“I am cautiously confident that we will be able to get through this because the staff is well-trained and valiant and dedicated, but these numbers are more than I have ever seen,” he said during his interview with the Source. As of Wednesday morning, Schneider had 15 COVID-positive patients, with two to three more admitted.
During Monday night’s board meeting Amaro said that since the hurricanes of 2017, work has continued to retrofit space within the hospital that was damaged and could not be used, including the expansion of its highly infectious disease unit, which has moved to the fifth floor where the Health Department was previously housed. An additional 32 beds have been added, allowing for the unit to care for 30-40 COVID-19 patients at a time, along with more than 20 regular medical patients.
In his interview with the Source, Amaro said that while he does sympathize with employees asking for a choice, the hospital’s primary focus needs to be on mobilizing all the tools it has to battle coronavirus and the ongoing surge caused by the delta variant, including vaccines, wearing gowns and using personal protective equipment. At this point, no deaths have been caused by the vaccine, no severe side-effects documented, and no fully vaccinated patients are currently in the hospital being treated for the virus, he added.
“The notion of requiring vaccines is not novel,” Amaro said. “But in any case, it’s not about vaccines, it’s about policy, and the institution continues to work to amend its policies for the best care of the staff and patients. This is another policy change because it has a clear benefit, and we have prioritized the vaccine because there is a preponderance of evidence that shows that the effects of the disease can be fatal.”