Some N.J. health workers weigh quitting over new vaccine mandate. Will it escalate the staffing crisis?

Pamela Weidermann has had enough. The recovery room nurse was the first staffer in her…

Pamela Weidermann has had enough.

The recovery room nurse was the first staffer in her department at a New Jersey hospital to get the COVID-19 vaccine, she says, after it rolled out in late 2020.

But she does not want a booster shot. She remains unsure about getting one, even if her job depends on it.

“I was for [coronavirus vaccination] because I do not want to wear these masks everywhere for the rest of my life, and I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be my way out,’” said Weidermann, who spoke to NJ Advance Media on the condition that her employer was not disclosed. “It was tunnel vision, but that’s the way I felt.”

She has since grown ambivalent about the vaccine — and booster shots — after hearing more and reading about them, she says. Weidermann then contracted COVID-19 on Jan. 13. The North Jersey nurse contends the antibodies from the infection should protect her for a few months, making a booster unnecessary.

But after Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order earlier this month — requiring health care workers and everyone else working in “high-risk congregate settings” in New Jersey to be vaccinated and boosted while eliminating the weekly testing option — she may not have a choice.

“I guess I have to cross that bridge when I get to it,” Weidermann said. “I don’t want to give up 32 years of seniority. I love where I am now. I love working in the recovery department.

“Everyone needs to make a living, and nobody’s job should be in jeopardy over something that a politician is demanding.”

Weidermann is among a small minority of New Jersey health care workers who have concerns about the vaccine but remained in the industry without seeking a medical or religious exemption. Now they feel cornered by Murphy’s latest mandate as a staffing crisis continues to plague hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Some workers say they will walk off the job as the deadline looms, while others debate their next move.

New Jersey hospital systems and health care unions say the vast majority of their employees are vaccinated — though it is unclear how many are boosted — due to largely pro-vaccine attitudes and a number of previous government and corporate mandates.

While the holdouts amount to only a fraction of the state’s health care employees, worker shortages in many hospitals and other facilities have reached a crisis level. Even a marginal number of losses will strain already overstretched staffs, threatening to affect patient care, experts say.

While they support vaccines, union leaders say the mandates have not helped during a delicate time when the health care system faces a critical worker shortage.

“The pressing issue for HPAE members is confronting a staffing crisis that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated to the breaking point,” said Debbie White, a registered nurse and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the state’s largest health care workers union.

The new vaccine requirement has different deadlines for health care workers and employees in congregate settings, such as those in long-term care and correctional facilities. Health care workers employed at facilities that receive funding through Medicare and Medicaid had until Jan. 27 to get a first vaccine and until Feb. 28 to complete a primary vaccination series and, if eligible, a booster.

Hospital workers were already required to be fully vaccinated without a testing option under an order by President Joe Biden that was upheld recently by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many hospital systems in the state also required vaccines, including Hackensack Meridian Health, RWJBarnabas Health and Virtua Health.

And Murphy previously issued an executive order in August requiring a vast amount of workers to be vaccinated. It included an option for employees to be tested at least weekly instead of getting inoculated.

But that testing option is no longer in play.

Weidermann said she’s hardly alone in her stance against the COVID-19 vaccine and booster, with several colleagues also objecting.

Jenna Cochrane, an MRI technician who lives in Toms River, has remained employed at an Ocean County imaging facility as long as she undergoes weekly coronavirus tests.

But her employer informed workers that they now must be vaccinated by February or face “disciplinary action, including termination,” she said. Murphy’s mandate all but strips the testing option and requires people to be fully vaccinated — including boosters, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. However, it does allow exemptions for those with disabilities, medical conditions or “deeply held religious beliefs.”

Cochrane’s reluctance to get the vaccine — over concerns it has not been adequately vetted for long-term effects — has hindered her ability to do the clinical work she needs to complete the nursing program at Ocean County College.

“I don’t want the vaccine,” said Cochrane, who has dreamed of becoming a nurse since she was a young child, hoping to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “Is it worth being fired over? That is what it’s going to come down to. I can’t do the clinical part of the college’s nursing program. I may have to change my major. This is messing up my entire life.”

Pamela, a critical care nurse from Central Jersey who declined to provide her surname or employer fearing retribution for questioning the policy, obtained a vaccine medical exemption last year because she was pregnant. (While federal health agencies have deemed the vaccine safe for pregnant women, vaccination rates among them have been low because many fear potential adverse effects involving their fetuses.)

Her maternity leave expires in March, and she says she is ready to lose her job over the vaccine mandate.

“I won’t go back,” said Pamela, who has been a nurse for 13 years and is the mother of four children, ranging from 10 weeks to 11 years old. “I don’t have any exemption to qualify for when I go back. I feel like I am going to have to leave my job.”

She said she had COVID-19 at the outset of the pandemic, in March 2020.

“I currently still have the antibodies. I had higher antibodies than I did a year ago,” she said. “I was probably exposed and produced more antibodies.”

Pamela stressed that she is not an “anti-vaxxer.” Her concerns solely involve the coronavirus shot.

“This vaccine is not even tested for long-term safety,” she said. “Flu vaccines have been around. I got it because they made me. It’s a tested vaccine. I felt more comfortable taking it, whereas this isn’t something that I feel comfortable with.”

The dearth of health care workers — both in New Jersey and nationally — has been a growing problem. There’s been an exodus of employees due to the mental and physical toll of working during the pandemic. Meanwhile, some nurses have departed for agencies that offer superior pay, and a large number of workers have been forced to call out sick after contracting COVID-19.

“Our hospitals are dealing with the aftershocks of an enormous surge fueled by yet another variant of the virus, omicron, which has sickened many healthcare workers, placing further stress on staff,” White said. “We urge lawmakers and administrators to establish solutions that can bring relief to our exhausted and traumatized healthcare workforce.”

About 3,000 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in New Jersey as of Saturday night, including 524 in intensive care and 431 on ventilators.

Federal agencies such as the CDC and Food and Drug Administration stress that vaccines are the best defense against a severe case of COVID-19, hospitalization and death — especially when bolstered by a booster shot.

“With the highly transmissible omicron variant spreading across the country and New Jersey, it is essential that we do everything we can to protect our most vulnerable populations,” Murphy said when he signed the new vaccination order. “With immunity waning approximately five months after a primary COVID-19 vaccination, receiving a booster dose is necessary to protect yourself and those around you.”

More than 6.58 million of the 8.6 million eligible people who live, work or study in New Jersey have been fully vaccinated. But nearly 45% of residents eligible for a booster have not gotten one.

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli called the number “unacceptably low” Monday during the governor’s weekly coronavirus briefing.

Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for the Murphy administration, defended the governor’s booster mandate for health care workers.

“COVID-19 vaccinations, inclusive of booster doses, continue to be extremely effective in preventing both COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths,” Altman said in a statement to NJ Advance Media. “Governor Murphy is grateful to every front line healthcare worker for their tireless dedication and believes we cannot let our healthcare system reach its breaking point.

“Governor Murphy remains concerned about the high ICU and ventilator-use numbers, as well as the significant number of new deaths recorded each day. Given the extremely vulnerable populations dependent on care in these settings, it is critical for staff to receive booster doses to best protect themselves, their colleagues, and those they are responsible for caring for each day.”

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, is among several Republican lawmakers who oppose the mandates.

Pennacchio, 66, a retired dentist, says he is vaccinated and boosted because of his age, which puts him in a higher risk group. But the senator opposes the “one-size-fits-all” approach of a vaccine mandate.

“They discount natural immunity, which to me — I’m a retired dentist, my degrees are in science — is unfathomable,” Pennacchio said. “Now, I’m not encouraging people to get sick, but having COVID gives natural immunity, and to discount that in its entirety makes no sense.”

Melissa Alfieri-Collins, a registered nurse from Holmdel, received a medical exemption last year from Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, but quit over the testing requirement for unvaccinated workers.

“They only tested the unvaccinated for COVID, not the vaccinated,” she said. “In [the interest of] true public health, everyone should be tested. If we truly want to be in a safe environment, that’s the only way to be sure.”

She became a per-diem nurse, but says that her stance on vaccines and the booster has cost her a few potential jobs.

“Everyone is not OK with having something injected into their bodies every few months,” said Alfieri-Collins, who is an advisor to the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice, a group advocating against mandatory vaccination.

NJ Advance Media staff writers Matt Arco and Brent Johnson contributed to this report.

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Elizabeth Llorente may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.