The terror when you find out the medical personnel treating you is unvaccinated

I thought the last place I’d have to worry about vaccine status is in a hospital room with the medical personnel treating me. I was wrong.

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Some medical personnel were among the first in Illinois to get vaccinated. In December 2020, nurse Shannon Lesch administers one of Illinois’ first five Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations outside of Chicago to chief of Emergency Services Dr. Victor Chan, 35, at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in downstate Peoria.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

I’m vaccinated. I never go out without a double mask.

I’ll leave a restaurant if no tables are available outside. I avoid being in close quarters indoors with strangers. I take all precautions.

And I thought the last place I’d have to worry about vaccine status is in a tiny hospital exam room, with the medical personnel treating me. I was wrong.

Halfway through a 45-minute procedure at Northshore University HealthSystem — with a medical tech touching me, leaning in inches from my face, engaging in animated conversation, one thin mask to my two thick ones — I found out she wasn’t vaccinated.

Splayed on the examining table frozen in terror, the remainder of the visit was hell.


I asked her why. She responded it was just her choice.

I lay there in fear and silence as she chatted away. When she finally — mercifully — left, I was shaking. I reamed the doctor who came in behind her. He empathized, apologized.

“Are you vaccinated?” I demanded. He confirmed he was. I called NorthShore the next day.

Jim Anthony, senior director of public relations, apologized for my horrible experience.

“NorthShore University HealthSystem is planning to implement a team member COVID-19 vaccination requirement. Details will be forthcoming in the near future,” he emailed.

After my experience, I’m convinced that comes late.

No one should find themselves in the most vulnerable of positions, on an exam table, wanting the medical personnel treating them to get out — to get as far away from their person as possible.

The National Institutes of Health predicts the United States could hit more than 200,000 daily new coronavirus cases by September — a number not seen since January, before the wide availability of vaccines. The surge is driven by the rapid spread of the Delta variant among the nation’s unvaccinated population.

By Saturday, the nation was averaging 129,000 new cases daily.

Many other countries — Italy, France and Greece included — mandate COVID-19 vaccination for health care workers. In the United States, however, debate rages.

On one side, there are those who argue freedom of choice — as well as the potential to exacerbate the nation’s already critical health care worker shortage — if those workers opt to leave rather than be vaccinated.

On the other side of the debate are more than 50 medical organizations — including the American Medical Association, American College of Physicians, American Nurses Association and American Public Health Association — backing compulsory vaccination, except for medical personnel not otherwise exempt for medical reasons.

“Due to the recent COVID-19 surge and the availability of safe and effective vaccines, our health care organizations and societies advocate that all health care and long-term care employers require their workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” the groups said in their July 26 statement.

“This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first, and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being.”

Hospital systems across the country have already responded to mandate vaccines among health care workers.

In the Chicago area, University of Chicago Medicine issued a mandate on July 13; Rush University Medical Center on July 26; Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital on Aug. 9; and Advocate Aurora Health in Downers Grove on Aug. 4.

Hospitals that have not already done so are risking the lives of patients who should be protected from COVID-19 by and from the staff caring for us.

Michael Parker, a professor of bioethics at the University of Oxford, who leads a research program focused on identification and analysis of ethical problems presented by advances in genomics, data science and global health argues “Frontline care roles should not be offered to people unwilling to be vaccinated against high risk infections.”

The Delta-fueled surge has lifted Illinois to an average of nearly 3,000 new COVID-19 cases daily — a four-month high. Illinois now falls within the Centers for Disease Control’s red “high risk” category. The statewide positivity rate is now 5.1 percent — a seven-month high — beginning to strain Illinois hospitals and care centers. The death toll: averaging 11 daily.

Nationwide, infections and transmissions primarily are occurring among the unvaccinated.

Hospital patients should not have to experience anxiety over the vaccination status of the other person in close quarters, when that other person is their medical personnel.

Since that visit, I think often of how close the medical tech was to my face as she chatted, and cringe. I will pay attention to every cough and body ache for the next two weeks.

And I will ask every medical provider their vaccine status.

If I work hard to take all precautions against COVID-19 — primarily to protect my immunocompromised son and the 95-year-old mother in my care, then NorthShore, your policy mandating vaccination of your hospital staff is not only late but overdue.

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