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COVID-19: The French health workers reluctant to get the vaccine

Should France require its caregivers to get vaccinated against CPVID-19?

Ninety-four doctors – including department heads who became media celebrities during the pandemic – have called on the government to pass a law forcing nursing home and hospital employees “exposed to, or exposing those in their care to the risk of infection” with COVID-19 to be vaccinated.

In an op-ed in the July 4th issue of the weekly Journal du Dimanche, the doctors called for vaccines to be made compulsory by early September to “prevent a fourth wave” of the pandemic in light of the rapid progression of the highly contagious Delta variant.

While Prime Minister Jean Castex has been holding meetings with members of parliament and local elected officials to discuss drafting a bill, Health Minister Olivier Véran expressed support for the measure.

“Asking a caregiver to get vaccinated is not finger-pointing,” he said Sunday night. “It’s simply asking them to see their commitment through.”

Fear of side effects

So far, only 57% of caregivers in nursing homes and 64% of hospital personnel have been vaccinated in France, according to the French Hospital Federation.

With the risk of a fourth wave looming, pressure is growing for all healthcare professionals to get the jab.

But many remain reluctant, sharing their concerns in anti-vaccination Facebook groups and on social media using the hashtag #JeNeMeVaccineraiPas (or #NotGettingVaccinated).

Sylvie, a retirement home nurse, has refused for fear of possible side effects. “I don’t trust their gene therapy. There’s not enough hindsight about the vaccine. It’s still experimental and humans are being used as guinea pigs. To me, it’s toxic,” she told FRANCE 24.

Martin, a psychiatric ward nurse, shares these fears. “We can’t be certain that there are no side effects in the medium and long term,” he said. “The vaccinations should only be for those at risk, like the elderly and people with underlying health issues,” he said, stressing that he was not anti-vaccine in general and was up to date with all his other shots. Half of his colleagues shared this view, he said, and the issue has become a contentious one.

“What will happen to those who refuse even if it is required?” he asked, saying such a law could “lead to a wave of resignations”.

Anita, an assistant nurse in a gastroenterology and palliative care unit, asked herself the same questions. “I wondered how there could be a vaccine in so little time that was effective and safe,” she said. “We had no information on what was going on regarding the disease, the vaccines, the treatments … It was totally different during the H1N1 epidemic, where there was much more information and more safety measures in place.”

After some reflection, Anita changed her mind and got vaccinated. “When you work in a unit like mine, there’s traffic, people come and go, there’s always the risk of contact with a patient who has the virus. I didn’t want to infect my family or get sick,” she said. “I also thought to myself that it wasn’t possible that they would inject the world’s population with a vaccine that was potentially very dangerous.”

Some vaccines already compulsory

Unions have been fielding questions from worried healthcare professionals.

“What we hear most often is that there’s not enough long-term perspective on the vaccine’s side effects. Professionals tell us that, usually, the clinical research phases are much longer than what we’ve seen here,” said Daniel Gillerm, president of the National Federation of Nurses.

The federation is in favour of compulsory vaccination for caregivers and has taken an educational approach in its effort to reassure those who are still wary.

“We have studies today showing that vaccination not only protects the individual, but also reduces the risk of transmissibility. It therefore makes sense to include the Covid vaccine in the required vaccination schedule for all caregivers,” Guillerm said.

Hospital and nursing home caregivers are already required to get vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, polio and hepatitis B.

A flu shot was added to this list in 2005, but was removed in 2006 after France’s Higher Council of Public Hygiene noted in a report that “it might meet opposition from health professionals”.

Italy passed a law in April requiring caregivers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 – those who fail to comply and who are in contact with the public are reassigned to other units or suspended without pay if no other position is available. Less than 3% of employees in the Italian health sector have refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19, but 300 of them have taken legal action to have the requirement lifted. An appeal with the Brescia Administrative Court is scheduled to be heard July 14.

In France, senators from the conservative Les Républicains party and centrists submitted a bill in April to make the vaccination of caregivers compulsory.

According to a July 1 Odoxa-Backbone Consulting study for French dailies Le Figaro and France Info, 72% of French people support the measure and a majority (58%) approve of a compulsory vaccination for the entire population.

Source: Stéphanie Trouillard – FRANCE 24