Pfizer vaccine LGH

In this photo from Dec. 17, 2020, Bobbi Jo Hurst, manager of employee health and safety at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, left, administers the first dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine in Lancaster County to Dr. Joseph Kontra, chief of infectious diseases, at Lancaster General Health Suburban Pavilion. Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health was the first health system in Lancaster County to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for its employees.

THE ISSUE

As of Friday morning, more than 721,000 Americans, including 1,161 Lancaster County residents, had died of COVID-19. As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Colin Evans reported last Tuesday, “Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in Lancaster County sharply increased to 122 over (last) weekend, the highest level since late January, after hovering around 100 since mid-September, according to data from the state Department of Health.”

The loudest voices often draw the most attention. So today, we’d like to lead with quieter voices — those of the heroic health care workers who have battled the COVID-19 pandemic for 19 months at great risk to their personal health and to that of their families.

In the early days of this pandemic, they were fighting an enemy no one knew much about. But they donned layers of personal protective equipment and learned as they went. They worked long, physically and mentally draining shifts that left them shattered by the scale of the death they were witnessing and trying mightily to prevent.

These health care workers were quick to pull up their sleeves to get vaccinated against COVID-19, not only because they believed in science and wanted to be protected against the virus, but because they wanted to protect their patients, too.

And when, after an early summer lull, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations rose again because of the highly transmissible delta variant and the failure of too many Americans to get vaccinated and wear masks in public spaces, the burden fell on health care workers to deal with the delta surge.

Dr. Alexandra Solosko, a pediatric hospitalist employed by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who practices at Lancaster General Hospital, is one such health care worker. In a powerful column published in last week’s Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline, Solosko wrote candidly about the toll and the “moral injury” the pandemic has exacted on health care workers. We urge you to read her column in full, if you haven’t already. What follows are some excerpts that we want to amplify.

Solosko lamented the misinformation that has spread, sometimes “faster than the virus,” about COVID-19. “Our pleas to take precautions seriously and to get vaccinated have been met with skepticism, mockery, threats and even violence,” she noted. “Our efforts to stabilize and treat patients and to save lives have been questioned as unnecessary, dishonest and even greedy. In many cases we, instead of the disease itself, have become the target of people’s anger. And yet, we are still counted on to care for the sick and the dying, as they continue to show up.”

“We are exhausted,” she continued. “We often feel defeated. We are frustrated. We are heartbroken. We are traumatized. Sometimes we are even afraid.”

“We don’t talk about these things much outside of work ... It is as if we are living dual lives, further isolated from those who cannot, who will not, see what we are seeing.”

Solosko wrote that health care workers “watch in disbelief as people fight over mask mandates and mitigation strategies and claim their personal right to spread aerosolized virus. Day after day, we put ourselves and our loved ones at risk, exposing ourselves to COVID-19. … We live in fear of bringing COVID-19 home to our unvaccinated children and our elderly parents.”

But what “really makes us cry in the stairwells,” she wrote, is not just that “children are losing parents, parents are losing children, and families are being changed forever. It’s the fact that almost all of the deaths and the majority of hospitalizations we are seeing this time around were completely preventable.”

Indeed. According to the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 90,000 COVID-19 adult deaths since June of this year “likely would have been prevented with vaccinations.”

Solosko wrote that it’s “not hard for people to look away from what is happening when they don’t have to watch patients and families suffering day in and day out. But those who work in health care don’t have the luxury of looking away.  And as a result, our country is seeing an increased incidence of burnout, suicide and post-traumatic stress among those in health care.”

Those who remain on the front lines “are resilient,” Solosko noted. “We show up hour after hour, day after day, week after week. And we will continue to do what we have been called to do, until we no longer have the resources to do it.”

And then Solosko asked for our help. What she asked for is simple, and nowhere close to the sacrifices she and other health care workers are making for us. She asked us to get vaccinated against COVID-19. To wear masks in public spaces. To avoid crowds. To practice social distancing. To get tested and stay home if we have symptoms or a significant COVID-19 exposure. To keep our children home from school if they are sick. 

“We ask that you take these actions not out of fear, but out of love,” Solosko concluded. “Show your children what it really means to care for our fellow humans.”

We add our voices to her quiet, poignant plea. Taking these measures is the very least we can do. 

Now, to the noisiest voices

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila reported Wednesday, some former and disgruntled Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health employees have filed a lawsuit in federal court under the collective and ludicrous name, Pennsylvania Informed Consent Advocates. 

They are peeved because Penn Medicine wisely announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in May and set a compliance deadline of Sept. 1. Employees who failed to comply with the mandate were dismissed. Now, some have hired Bruce L. Castor Jr. to represent them. 

Castor — a former Pennsylvania solicitor general who served briefly as acting state attorney general — helped to lead former President Donald Trump’s defense counsel in his second impeachment trial last February. Castor’s discombobulated opening statement drew widespread mockery from legal experts. As The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “Castor’s rambling presentation had the internet howling.”

As the Montgomery County district attorney in 2005, Castor unilaterally promised Bill Cosby that he would not be prosecuted after the comedian was accused of sexually assaulting a Temple University employee. But Castor did not put the secret agreement in writing. So another Montgomery County district attorney prosecuted Cosby, who was convicted in 2018 of raping and drugging the former Temple employee. But earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the conviction on the grounds that Cosby’s constitutional rights had been violated. Writing for the website The Bulwark, University of Baltimore School of Law professor Kimberly Wehle maintained that it “was Castor’s missteps ... that produced Cosby’s freedom.”

In the case against Penn Medicine and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Scott Ketcham, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration director who is wrongly identified in the lawsuit as the U.S. labor secretary, Castor is making a First Amendment claim.

“This civil action arises out of the Defendants’ flagrant disregard for the constitutional rights of American citizens in their attempt to compel vaccinations,” the lawsuit asserts.

It claims that vaccines “have been politicized to a point where receiving or declining a vaccine has become a political act in the eyes of the public, and being compelled into discussing one’s vaccine status is compelling that person to engage in political speech. By forcing its employees to disclose their vaccine status, University of Pennsylvania Health System is acting as a state actor when compelling political speech in violation of the First Amendment.”

It’s pretty nervy for vaccine mandate opponents to claim that because COVID-19 vaccination has become too politicized, they should not be compelled to get a vaccine when they were the ones who turned a safe and effective tool of disease prevention into political fodder.

In addition to hiring the Republican Castor, the members of Pennsylvania Informed Consent Advocates joined hands with FreePA, an overtly political and extremist group of so-called “patriots” who have opposed the so-called “tyranny” of mask-wearing and other COVID-19 mitigation measures. FreePA organized protests in the summer against the Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health vaccine mandate.

So the resentful health care workers’ claims that they were compelled “to engage in political speech” are laughable.

Penn Medicine necessarily dismissed a small number of its roughly 38,000 Penn Medicine employees (that includes more than 9,000 with Lancaster General Health) because they refused to comply with their employer’s infection-control protocols and so posed a danger to patients. And now some of the fired employees are among those suing.

Their self-centered, anti-science hissy fit is the antithesis of the selfless compassion other health care workers have demonstrated during this pandemic. To those health care workers, we convey our deepest gratitude.

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