Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Cambridge Health Alliance workforce is 99 percent fully vaccinated, a spokesperson says. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A group of Cambridge Health Alliance employees says the health care system unfairly denied them medical and religious exemptions from Covid-19 vaccinations and they are about to lose their jobs. Deborah Race, a nurse in CHA’s information technology department, sent an impassioned message to chief executive Assaad Sayah Thursday on behalf of the 36 workers, asserting: “Assaad, you always say that we are family, but you don’t act like it, and your actions say otherwise.”

Separately, the Massachusetts Nurses Association has filed grievances on behalf of four CHA employees who were refused exemptions, spokesperson Joe Markman said Friday. The union believes Covid-19 vaccines “are safe and effective” and supports mandates “as long as appropriate medical and religious exemptions are provided,” Markman said.

In an interview, Race said many of the employees in her group, including herself, work remotely with no contact with patients or other staff. One person denied a medical exemption is suffering from cancer and lives in Colorado, where he works remotely from home, she said. “Every one of us was willing and able to take safety precautions (including testing) in the workplace, if needed, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and protect the co-workers they work with and, most importantly, our patients,” Race said in the message to Sayah.

Race said 80 workers in total face termination on Nov. 5 after not getting exemptions.The Alliance employs almost 5,000 people. The Cambridge Housing Authority has also required employees to get vaccinated, but won’t fire those who don’t; instead, they must pay for tests twice a week.

Alliance spokesperson David Cecere said more than 99 percent of the workforce is fully vaccinated as of Friday. “Throughout the pandemic, Cambridge Health Alliance has taken every possible step to ensure the well-being of our patients and employees, and the vaccine requirement, which is a federal mandate for all health care facilities, helps to provide the safest environment for our staff and the individuals and communities we serve,” he said. “We have considered and granted exemption requests in accordance with applicable laws related to the protection of our employees’ religious and disability rights.”

Cecere did not provide specifics on the number of employees who have received exemptions.

Core of resistance

The controversy over the vaccination mandate at CHA has exposed an emotional divide in Cambridge similar to more publicized differences in other places. Discussing lagging vaccination rates among 16- to 19-year-olds at a City Council meeting Oct. 18, Cambridge Public Health Department medical director Lisa Dobberteen observed that there is “a core of [vaccine] hesitance” here and said: “I think what we are coming up against is Cambridge’s window on what is happening in a far greater fashion in other places in the country. Sadly.”

Race said her family emigrated here from the Azores 61 years ago. She said she was born at Somerville Hospital, worked three jobs to get her nursing degree at the hospital nursing school –which no longer exists – and had worked at CHA all her adult life.”I have given my life to our community,” she said.

During the pandemic, she said, she was assigned to a comfort care unit at Everett Hospital and took care of patients dying from Covid-19. Now facing termination, “I feel like I’m grieving an actual loss,” she said. Race said officials didn’t give her or colleagues any reason for denying their exemption requests.

Religious reasons

Raised a Catholic, she joined a Pentecostal Christian church 15 years ago, Race said. “I received the Holy Spirit. For me that was a life-changing experience,” Race said.

“I believe my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s my responsibility to protect it against anything that would defile the Holy Spirit,” she said. That includes Covid-19 vaccines because they were developed using fetal tissue from abortions, Race said. Her religious beliefs “would prohibit me from benefiting from abortion no matter how remote” the connection, she said. Race said she has not had any vaccinations, including for influenza, for the past 10 years.

Asked how a hospital can fully protect patients and staff from Covid-19 if employees are not vaccinated, Race cited scientific findings that vaccinated people can transmit Covid-19, but omitted the fact that those who are vaccinated are much less likely to get infected in the first place.

Race said employees who have unsuccessfully sought exemptions organized their group for support and have consulted attorneys. Eight workers at Mass General Brigham hospital who couldn’t get exemptions filed a federal lawsuit Oct. 17 alleging that the hospital discriminated and retaliated against them.

CHA exemption request forms provided by Race indicate that pregnant employees could ask for a “temporary exemption.” Race said that after offering the option, CHA changed course and did not provide temporary pregnancy exemptions.

This post was updated Nov. 17, 2021, to add context to a comment by Cambridge Public Health Department medical director Lisa Dobberteen about local resistance to getting vaccinated. She was talking at the time about a teen age group.