Nurses against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the territory’s hospital workers have taken their fight to the V.I. Superior Court, where their union has filed an emergency motion asking a judge to block implementation of the policy.
The move follows recent protests on St. Croix and St. Thomas against the V.I. Hospitals and Health Facilities Corporation’s Aug. 6 decision to require all employees of the territory’s hospitals to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 24 or face being fired.
“With more than 331 million doses administered in the U.S., the vaccines have proven safe and extremely effective against symptomatic infections, hospitalizations and death. The vaccines are so effective that today more than 99% of people who die from COVID-19 are unvaccinated. The science is clear — vaccines save lives,” corporation Chairman Christopher Finch said in a memorandum announcing the mandate.
According to Friday’s court filing by attorney Earnesta L. Taylor on behalf of the Virgin Islands Nurses’ Association Collective Bargaining Unit, represented by plaintiff and union chairwoman Melisia Hanley, the mandate will result in crippling staff shortages at the territory’s hospitals where it says more than 55 percent of nurses are not vaccinated.
Moreover, the motion says, the mandate violates their collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, and due process rights.
“The Vaccine Mandate is a violation of the CBA and interferes with and prevents Employees from exercising their rights under the CBA,” the motion states.
“Employees stand to lose their jobs at the only two hospitals in the Territory, wages, benefits and the bargained for consideration under the parties CBA. In addition, the Hospitals’ employees are under threat of employment termination, and to remain employed, are being forced to take a substance into their body that the long-term effects of which are unknown,” the motion states.
“If the Vaccine Mandate is enforced and termination of nurses ensue, many Employees will lose their livelihood with no present recourse and the Hospitals, that are charged with delivering a reliable and stable system of health care to the people of the Territory, face losing over half of its nursing staff. A loss of over half of the Hospitals’ nursing staff puts the entire health care delivery system in the Virgin Islands at risk of destabilization,” the motion states.
Schneider Regional Medical Center and Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital are named as defendants in the civil action along with the Hospitals Corporation.
Instead of a vaccine mandate, the union is proposing other less-intrusive measures to prevent the virus including proper use of personal protective equipment, or PPE, sanitization stations, separation of COVID and non-COVID areas, indoor ventilation systems, social distancing protocols, employee education and regular testing.
“There is no immediate solution to replace the large number of nurses that may be terminated. Issuance of the requested injunction will ensure the Parties take the time to negotiate new policies and procedures for the protection against the spread of COVID infections while maintaining a stable healthcare system in the Territory,” the motion states.
Hospital officials have stood firmly behind the vaccine mandate despite the opposition to it. “The notion of requiring vaccines is not novel,” Schneider CEO Dr. Luis Amaro told the Source in a recent interview. “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.”
“It is our responsibility to lead in recovery and eradication of COVID-19 through vaccination. We ask for the public’s understanding and support as we work to create a safer patient care experience through this pandemic surge and in the future as we change to meet the needs of the community,” JFL interim Chief Executive Officer Dyma Williams said in a recent statement defending the mandate.
In a July statement, the Virgin Islands Medical Society also voiced support for vaccine mandates for health care workers, joining 60 other organizations in doing so including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Nursing Association and American Hospital Association, the country’s biggest hospital group.
The University of the Virgin Islands is the only other USVI institution to have issued a vaccine mandate. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has resisted doing the same for V.I. government workers, saying he prefers to continue to “incentivize” employees to get vaccinated despite numerous government office closures in recent weeks due to COVID-19 infections or exposure.