Frontline workers continue to face wrath of the unvaccinated

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Dr. Kusum Punjabi, administering vaccines at the Ocean County vaccination clinic in New Jersey. Photo: Kusum Punjabi

At a critical time when the US just surpassed 800,000 pandemic deaths and Omicron is emerging as the next dominant variant, frontline workers around the country continue to endure violent attacks, verbal abuse, aerial surveillance, and online bullying on social media platforms.  Once considered as saviors and often praised for their heroic and selfless service, these workers are now being needlessly attacked for encouraging vaccinations and enforcing mandatory mask requirements as part of their official duties.

Just last week, Kristina Lawson, president of the Medical Board of California, claimed that she was stalked by a group of anti-vaccination armed extremists, who also used drones to conduct surveillance. “I was followed and confronted by a group that peddles medical disinformation, promotes fake COVID-19 treatments, and is under investigation by Congress for stealing millions of dollars from consumers. It was a terrifying experience. To start the day, the group parked their rental SUV near the end of my driveway, and then flew a drone over my house,” wrote Lawson, who is a former mayor of Walnut Creek, California, in her twitter account.

News India Times interviewed a few frontline workers to get their reactions on these attacks. These physicians strongly felt that harassment and attacks are totally unwarranted and remarked that people are clearly exhibiting anger and frustration over vaccine and mask requirements. They also recalled that they were treated with greater respect when COVID-19 began, but they witness a new reality these days.

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Expressing disapproval over attacks on frontline workers, Dr. Kusum Punjabi, a board-certified physician in Emergency Medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey, stated “the community treated me like gold and supported the ER staff really well in the beginning. I didn’t experience any problems then, but now I am experiencing backlash from patients who aren’t vaccinated. These patients don’t believe in vaccines but are demanding antibodies that are on short supply. Honestly, I would rather keep antibodies for people who are old or high risk and vaccinated, and may need it if they get COVID-19.  When I advise these patients to get vaccinated, I hear responses such as, ‘please don’t lecture me; I’m old enough to make my own decisions’ and so on. They lack understanding of the implications of their actions, and it has become a real challenge these days.”

Dr. Punjabi, who’s also the chair of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) Board of Trustees, informed that she sees resistance even outside. She recalled “I remember going to Costco recently with my parents and I advised someone ‘Ma’am you should wear your mask.’ And the woman immediately retorted, ‘who are you? The mask police?’ I responded that I am an ER physician who’s seeing a lot of sick patients due to COVID-19.  That’s why I am really concerned. Then, the woman put her mask on and walked away.”

Dr. Punjabi explained that the Spanish Flu took four years to get eradicated, and that we are going to live with this virus for the foreseeable future. According to her, even frontline workers don’t have a good grasp on this virus. Dr. Punjabi said she understands people are frustrated and therefore she deals accordingly with patients who get upset with her with this calm response “look, I didn’t create the disease. But, I’m here trying to protect you. I am trying to make sure you and your loved ones are safe.”

Dr. Sandeep Johar, clinical assistant professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Medicine in Connecticut. Photo: nossmd.com

Dr. Sandeep Johar, clinical assistant professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Medicine in Connecticut, stated that although he has not experienced any attacks personally, he has heard of his colleagues’ experience harassment while on duty and outside. “It’s very sad. Frontline workers are sticking their necks out and trying to help people in times of need and in the process getting abused and harassed. It’s very unfair and unfortunate that they are treated in this manner. The pandemic has taken many things in a wrong direction.”

Also a board-certified physician in Emergency Medicine, Dr. Johar pointed out that in general people are stressed, impatient, and readily snap at hospital staff.  He said that when it comes to the issue of vaccinations people have very diverse perspectives, with some having strong feelings against government issued vaccine mandates. Eventually, their frustration is being channeled into attacking physicians and nurses while their actions risk their own lives and that of the immunocompromised. He informed that even though patients are fed up with wearing masks they have no choice but to follow rules in hospital settings.

Another physician specializing in Emergency Medicine at a Florida hospital, Dr. S. Pereira also condemned attacks on frontline workers. He is aware of a few situations that became contentious when his colleagues discussed vaccine and mask requirements with their patients. According to him, it is obvious that people are clearly frustrated and divided over vaccines, but they comply with the mandatory mask requirements at hospitals. Dr. Pereira also recalled “when COVID-19 began, people were grateful and gracious to us. But, those sentiments have largely vanished.”

The CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), Lori Freeman wrote a letter to Attorney General, Merrick Garland, this past October and requested him to protect public health staff and officials from COVID related harassment and attacks.

The letter urged “throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, local health leaders have had to make difficult choices about the health and safety of their communities, deliberating over decisions on masking, vaccinations, school and business openings and closings, as well as ensuring the quarantine or isolation of individuals who test positive for the virus. They do so despite extreme stress and strain, harassment, and increased politicization. While the pandemic has brought greater appreciation by many to the importance of public health and the people who work in the field, too many health department leaders and their staff have experienced threats to their jobs, their safety, and their family members.”

The letter further highlighted the frustration and anger directed at these front line workers, who are quitting their jobs out of fear. “These threats have come from community members, organized (and armed) anti-government militias, and politicians.  As one of our members, Dr. Jennifer McKenney stated in her testimony before Congress on September 29, 2021: ‘Even though the virus is the enemy, their anger and frustration are often directed toward public health officials like me.’ These threats have taken a toll: at least 300 public health department leaders have left their posts since the pandemic began, impacting 20 per cent of Americans.”

 

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