IFPTE Local 21 Front Line Workers Receive COVID Vaccines

Local 21 members across Northern California are showing the value of public service during this crisis, and the ways in which our working conditions are directly correlated with the conditions of our community. This is especially true of our union siblings working in healthcare, who have been on the front lines treating COVID patients. We are extremely encouraged by the recent rollout of COVID vaccines to these Local 21 members. Below are some of the reflections from rehab professionals and physician assistants in our union who have been given the opportunity to be among the first to get vaccinated.

Charles O’Grady, a physical therapist at the SF General Hospital for 7 years, works day to day with patients who are hospitalized and recovering from serious illnesses, including COVID. His COVID patients have lost their strength and need help restoring their abilities, everything from sitting and standing to sleepiness and memory loss. Charles tested positive for COVID in June and was thankfully asymptomatic but still sent home for two weeks. “Early on in the pandemic, it was nerve wracking. No one knew what to expect.”

Lisa Hunter, a speech language pathologist in rehabilitation who has worked at Zuckerberg SF General Hospital since 2005, helps COVID patients who have been on ventilators and risk choking when eating due to weakened muscles.

Our members are often treating COVID patients in addition to their other essential health care work with high risk populations. Kathy Lee has worked as a rehab therapist at Laguna Honda Hospital for 18 years and was one of the first to receive the new vaccine. “A lot of it is hand-over-hand depending on the need. You have no option to stand six feet apart from your patients.”

Tomo Tom, who has worked for 8 years as an occupational therapist at Laguna Honda Hospital, helps patients who have suffered from strokes regain independence in their daily living activities. He reteaches them how to get dressed, toilet themselves, wash themselves, and get up and in bed. “Social distancing is impossible while we’re treating a patient. I have to wear all the PPE, there’s always the concern that I might pick up something they have. The vaccine gives me some peace of mind.”

Getting the vaccine was an easy process. Recipients of the vaccine are screened for potential allergies and monitored for about 15 minutes after the jab to make sure they don’t show any allergic reactions. According to Lisa, “It was sort of exciting. I hardly felt it all, but my arm was sore the next day.”

Recipients are also provided with plenty of literature on the pros and cons of taking the vaccine. Kathy was a little hesitant, at first: “Being first is kind of hard. But on the day of I was ready—let’s get this done. Hopefully I can empower other people, friends and family, to get on board.” After educating herself and consulting people she trusted, Lisa said “I felt confident in my decision that I was doing the best thing for me. I feel very grateful being one of the people so far to have this opportunity—to have this shield.” For many of our members, potential side effects were outweighed by the prospect of some immunity from the virus. As Charles put it: “The ounce of prevention is worth the pound of cure.”

“Early on the union really advocated for staff safety and helped us have a voice.” — Kathy Lee, rehab therapist at Laguna Honda Hospital for 18 years

Being vaccinated is not a 100% guarantee of immunity. Nor does getting vaccinated prevent us from unintentionally spreading the virus. “I’m still going to be very careful with everything I do,” says Tomo. “It’s not going to change my behavior. As a whole we should all be doing that.”

When the pandemic began, our members had to ration things like n95 masks. We were even at times admonished for wearing masks or threatened with termination for insisting on having them. But now our hospitals are equipped with enough PPE to keep workers and patients safe. Throughout this pandemic, our union has done everything to support our members, keep them safe, informed, and well equipped to safely do our work. According to Charles: “We were far ahead of the curve simply because our union was advocating for us. Were it not for the union voicing our concerns management would not have taken the steps to protect us.”

“The union has constantly had my back throughout all of this.” — Tomo Tom, occupational therapist at Laguna Honda Hospital for 8 years.