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Can front-line workers skeptical of COVID-19 vaccine be forced to get it?

Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

If workers start opting out because they don't want a vaccine, that only exacerbates the staffing shortages, Ikemoto said.

"They can't afford at this point in the crisis to lose health care providers," she said. "They don't want to fire people; they don't want to move people into a different kind of work where they don't have contact with patients."


The U.S. Supreme Court in 1905 ruled that states battling smallpox could impose "compulsory" vaccine mandates for everyone, with limited exceptions.

The ruling has allowed states to require vaccinations for children before they attend public schools, members of the military to undergo a whole host of shots upon enlisting and vaccinations in a handful of other professions, such as daycare workers.

Once hailed as a public health miracle that eradicated polio, smallpox and a host of other diseases in America, more than a century later, distrust in vaccines is at an all time high, fueled in large part by a sea of online nonsense and conspiracy theories.

But experts also caution that many Americans, who might otherwise support COVID-19 vaccinations, will push back at statewide mandates over the government telling them what to do with something as personal as their own bodies.

California's recent history shows that opposition to vaccine mandates can be fierce, especially from those who believe strongly in the debunked claims that vaccines are harmful.

In 2019, an anti-vaccine activist assaulted Pan after the state senator introduced a bill restricting the number of exceptions parents could claim to opt from vaccinations before attending schools. Later, an anti-vaccine activist threw a container of menstrual blood at lawmakers on the floor of the Senate. Newsom signed Pan's bill.

Local edicts also have run into pushback. Shasta County's health officer last year issued an order that required health care workers to receive a flu vaccine, but she ended up rescinding it after angry members of the public, including some health care workers and members of the Board of Supervisors, said it was infringing on the workers' personal freedoms.

Some of the resistance to get COVID-19 vaccines may be fueled by conspiracy theories, but the reluctance to get a new vaccine pushed out under the name "Operation Warp Speed" is predictable and understandable, especially in light of how the pandemic has been politicized, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a legal expert on vaccines at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

"People are not familiar with it and are more nervous, and the process has been faster than usual," she said. "And that will automatically raise concern, especially for people who are not familiar with the process."

Dr. Jake Scott, an infectious disease expert at Stanford University, said he, too, "can understand why people might be skittish for a number of reasons."

But those concerns aren't founded.

He said the vaccines being administered now were tested on tens of thousands of people in carefully controlled studies, and the studies found no serious complications among those who received them.

"At this point, we're not really seeing any significant risk," Scott said.

The ingredients in the vaccine are safe, and aren't making people seriously ill, causing infertility or any of the other wild claims people are claiming about them online, Scott said.

"I really don't feel like there were any corners cut with these vaccine studies," Scott said in an interview last week, an hour before he was to get the second dose of one of the vaccines.


The vaccines were able to be produced so quickly because the technology behind the mRNA vaccines has been in development for years, he said.

It also helped that governments threw billions of dollars into their development, bypassing a lengthy process in which drug companies typically have to convince "financial investors to provide enough money to take it to Phase 1," Scott said.

"Otherwise, these vaccine trials went through all of the typical phases that the trials would normally go through. And there were huge numbers. I mean, these were big studies," he said.

That said, there's always a small risk of complications with any drug, Scott said.

The most common reactions people have to the vaccines are swelling around the injection site and low-grade fever and mild flu symptoms that typically fade within a day or two. Scott said that's a sign "our immune system is working" and that "we've earned the immunity."


But it's going to take time to convince skeptics that the benefits of getting the shots far outweigh the risks of catching a sometimes lethal virus.

Peggy Jahani is one of the health care workers with a "wait and see" approach to the vaccine.

She's a telephone "appointment and advice" nurse who normally works in a Kaiser call center in Sacramento. For the past few months, she and other nurses have been allowed to work from home.

Jahani said some of her co-workers "are a little bit leery. I'm kind of leery, but I want to get it."

Her reluctance stems from a previous bout of Bell's palsy — a temporary condition that causes muscles to sag on one side of a person's face. Jahani said she fears that the vaccine could lead to a relapse.

The Food and Drug Administration has said a few participants in the clinical vaccine trials developed brief bouts of Bell's palsy, though it wasn't clear to researchers whether it was caused by the vaccination. People who've experienced Bell's palsy are still encouraged to get the vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nonetheless, Jahani said she'll likely get the vaccine, but wants to wait for more people to get it first.

"I want to be sure the vaccine has been proven to be safe enough," she said. "I feel it's imperative that we (health care workers) get this at some point. That's the only way we're going to get herd immunity."

Olmsted Hamlin, the Sacramento emergency room nurse, said she's normally pro-choice about what she calls "bodily autonomy," but she would support making vaccines mandatory for her colleagues.

"It's a choice to work in health care," she said. "It's a choice to work in a specific hospital; no one's making you do it. It's not a right. It's not something you're being forced to do. And you're taking care of vulnerable people, and you are around coworkers that have to be around you. At that point, I think it's different."

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