For the estimated 10 percent of health-care workers in Santa Barbara County who have not yet been vaccinated against COVID, the state’s new requirement — which mandates proof of vaccination starting September 30 — may force them out of their jobs unless they get the shot or receive an elusive medical or religious exemption.
One of those health-care workers is Dr. Mark Abate, a hematologist and oncologist who has practiced in Santa Barbara for more than 33 years with Sansum Medical Clinic, Ridley-Tree Cancer Center, and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
When the California Department of Public Health announced the Health Care Worker Vaccine Requirement in early August, the state was in the midst of yet another spike in cases due to the quick-spreading Delta variant, with case rates increasing ninefold within two months. Health-care facilities are “high-risk settings,” said State Public Health Director Tomás J. Aragón, where COVID-19 outbreaks can have “severe consequences for vulnerable populations,” including hospitalization, severe illness, and death. In an effort to protect both the workers and the patients, the state instituted the requirement and said all health-care workers must get vaccinated by September 30.
Abate was one of the first medical professionals in the county to speak out publicly in opposition to the mandate when he gave comments at an August Board of Supervisors meeting. He is currently seeking a religious exemption — one of two options to work around the requirement —and spoke to the Independent about why he is choosing not to be vaccinated and what consequences await when the mandate goes into effect.
“I am personally against the current vaccine and testing mandates that currently affect health-care workers and professionals in the State of California,” Abate said. “I am personally against any form of vaccine mandate, or passport. I believe that they are divisive and do far more harm than good.”
According to the latest estimates from Cottage Health, 90 percent of all employees have already been vaccinated, and 80 percent had voluntarily gotten vaccinated before the mandate had been announced. Abate is one of few practicing doctors of medicine that has been working unvaccinated; current hospital regulations require that he test negative twice a week to be cleared.
“I don’t think there are very many doctors that are in this situation. I think the vast majority of the doctors have accepted the vaccination,” Abate said.
His choice is based on personal values, both medical and religious. He doesn’t consider himself “anti-vax,” but rather he thinks that each person should have the right to accept or deny the COVID vaccines.
“I’m not against the vaccine. I’d say the majority of my friends and colleagues and family have taken the vaccine, but I do think it should be up to the individual person,” he said. “I haven’t been vaccinated all this time, and it was safe for me to practice. Now, all of a sudden after September 30, it’s no longer safe if I’m not vaccinated,” he said
Even if Abate is granted a religious exemption — which is at the sole discretion of the health-care facility — he will still be tested twice a week, something he says is “discrimination” toward those who are unvaccinated. “If they truly were interested in safety, everybody should be tested,” he said.
As a practicing Catholic, Abate contends that the vaccines used “cell lines and fetal tissues” during development stages, which goes against his religious beliefs.
Board-certified infectious disease expert James Lawler, MD, wrote in August: “No, the COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted fetal cells. However, fetal cell lines — cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected generations ago — were used in testing during research and development of the mRNA vaccines, and during production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”
Lawler, also a vocal Catholic, called the description of ongoing fetal tissue harvesting to create vaccines “dishonest sensationalism,” and pointed to the Vatican’s guidance that allows Roman Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines that use fetal cell lines in good faith.
Abate said the process to apply for the religious exemption was a single form, and he did not have to provide a letter from his priest, although he had prepared to have one ready. As of yet, he has not heard back regarding approval. The administration, he said, has left him hanging. “They won’t respond about the exemptions — how can you get them? Who decides? When will I hear?”
If he is denied a religious exemption, he plans to seek a medical one, but if he is denied both, he will not be able to work. “If I’m not granted either exemption, the way the mandate rules, not only can I not practice at Samsun and Cottage; I can’t practice in medicine anywhere in the state.”
This blanket mandate represents an overreach, he said. “Government should educate the public in a balanced manner and provide easy access to vaccination to all those that choose, but never mandate, force, or threaten loss of employment.”
After September 30, his only option may be legal recourse, something nine health-care workers in Maine are currently tackling in federal court.
In the announcement of the mandate, Chief Medical Officer at Sansum Clinic Dr. Kurt Ransohoff reiterated the safety of the vaccines. “Vaccinations are extremely effective at preventing someone from winding up in the hospital with COVID-19 or dying as a result of that illness,” Ransohoff said. “They are effective at preventing any form of COVID-19 infection, but in preventing the really bad outcomes, these vaccines are remarkably effective.”
Editor’s Note: After this article published, Sansum Clinic issued a statement to clarify its position regarding vaccination and its decision regarding Dr. Abate. That statement appears here.