A health-care professional gives a COVID-19 test to a patient at Sansum. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

As the state public health department’s deadline for health-care workers to get vaccinated came and went, those opposed to vaccines were forced to make a choice — some chose to get the vaccine, some chose to apply for medical and religious exemptions, and others remained opposed and willing to lose work if necessary.

In early September, it was estimated that 10 percent of California’s health-care workers were still unvaccinated, but current numbers show that the state’s mandates have helped close that gap even further.

Here in Santa Barbara County, Sansum Clinic has seen nearly all of its employees comply with the state’s mandate, minus a few holdouts. Though Sansum is legally bound to keep all employees’ personal health information confidential, including vaccination status, Public Information Officer Jill Fonte said that 99 percent of health-care providers and 98 percent of staff members are now fully vaccinated.

Currently, there are 180 physicians, and nearly 1,000 staff overall; there is only one MD confirmed to be working unvaccinated with a religious exemption, with an estimated 15-20 staff who have received either medical or religious exemptions that allow them to work as long as they follow all safety protocols. “The small fraction who have a religious or medical exemption also are required to wear masks and also required to be tested at least weekly and in some cases twice weekly,” Fonte said.  

Of the 2 percent of Sansum employees who applied for an exemption due to medical or religious reasons, Fonte said a large number work in “non-clinical settings” or remotely from home.

Less than a handful, she said, chose not to get vaccinated and also decided not to pursue an exemption. “And as a result, [they] were relieved of their positions,” Fonte said. This is in accordance with the California Public Health Department’s mandate that all health-care employees must be vaccinated in order to continue working.  Several of those employees have indicated they would return if the mandate is lifted, she said.

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 — spoke against vaccine mandates and was granted religious exemption shortly before the September 30 deadline.

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Sansum granted his exemption a week before, and Cottage Hospital issued the exemption just a day before the mandated deadline. Abate said he was willing to lose the ability to work if necessary, but neither of his employers ever gave “any inclination” that his application would be denied.

He is permitted for outpatient work at Sansum as long as he is tested weekly, but for inpatient work at Cottage Hospital, he is required to be tested twice weekly. “So for the last two months, I have been tested for COVID-19 twice per week,” Abate said. 

Working alongside coworkers who are for the most part fully vaccinated has not changed Abate’s mind, but he said colleagues have made it clear that they do not agree with his  decision.  “I have received some letters encouraging me to get vaccinated, most of which I feel are in the spirit of trying to be helpful,” he said, adding that he has also received letters of support and remains opposed to all vaccine mandates.

Fonte also said that although most of Sansum’s staff are on board with vaccination, there is still a small minority that speaks out against the mandates — but the clinic maintains a priority for patient and staff safety by ensuring mask and testing protocols.

“Of course, we realize from emails we receive, and from feedback from those who work at our clinic, that there are people in our community who hold different opinions on COVID-19 vaccines,” Fonte said. “We aim to provide a safe environment and follow all regulations that health-care organizations must abide by, while also promoting a culture of empathy and understanding, for patients and employees, regardless of the views they might hold.“

Staff are not required to disclose their vaccination status to patients, but Fonte said many of the clinic’s physicians have been “more than willing and happy to share their vaccination status” when asked by patients.

“Our clinic leadership, health-care providers, and the vast majority of our staff believe that COVID-19 vaccination is the right and responsible choice and is something that has protected our patients, our community, and our own team,” Fonte said.

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