Breda O’Brien: Healthcare students bullied into taking AstraZeneca vaccine

Despite having legitimate concerns, they were mocked and painted as anti-vaxxers

The student  received a phone call from the medical school telling him that he had two options: take the AstraZeneca vaccine or be suspended from further training for a year. Photograph: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The student received a phone call from the medical school telling him that he had two options: take the AstraZeneca vaccine or be suspended from further training for a year. Photograph: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

 

During the first lockdown, we praised healthcare students for their selflessness. When their placements were cancelled, many of them worked in difficult and even dangerous situations in hospitals and nursing homes, sometimes without adequate PPE.

The rates of infection among healthcare workers were staggering. Some healthcare students ended up in stressful positions of responsibility when qualified colleagues succumbed to Covid-19. Some moved into rented accommodation to protect their families. Like other healthcare workers, they made significant sacrifices.

The reward for some of them has been bullying and intimidation when, for various legitimate reasons, they wished to delay receiving the Covid-19 vaccine. Bullying is not a word to be used lightly. Read the following case and judge whether it is warranted.

The HSE has suspended the ban on unvaccinated students taking up placements, but no one knows for how long

A medical student told me that on reading the research on blood clotting associated with AstraZeneca he became increasingly concerned. He is not anti-vaccine. As he said wryly to me, he appreciates the wonder of modern medicine. 

Nonetheless, as someone under 30, he felt that the chances of severe illness from catching Covid were less of a threat than the very rare but very serious clotting disorders associated with AstraZeneca. He was willing to take the Pfizer vaccine.

When it was announced that students could not take up placements unless vaccinated, vaccination was, in effect, made mandatory. They were the only category of healthcare worker for whom this was the case.

About two weeks ago, this student’s medical school surveyed students to establish their vaccination status. He replied honestly, giving his reasons for declining the AstraZeneca vaccination, but stressing his willingness to be vaccinated.

He received a letter that did not engage with his concerns but stating that he could not take up his clinical placement. 

Suspended

He then received a phone call from the medical school telling him that he had two options: take the AstraZeneca vaccine or be suspended from further training for a year. Like many students, he could not afford to defer.

By now, he felt under extreme strain and feared that he might be damaging his future career. With great reluctance, especially given that AstraZeneca was now under scrutiny by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac), he accepted an appointment for Monday, April 12th.

He made two further attempts, first by email on the morning of April 12th and then when he arrived at the clinic, to state that a decision by Niac was expected within hours and to ask that given the circumstances, could he be given the Pfizer vaccine at the same hospital at a clinic which was on the same afternoon. 

He alleges that the clinic’s administration staff told him that they were aware that the Niac decision was imminent and likely to favour his viewpoint, but said that the Pfizer vaccine was reserved for over-70s. So he held out his arm. Within the hour, the Niac decision to suspend vaccination for under-60s was announced.

This is not only bullying, it is stupid. If, God forbid, this student suffers side-effects, he is on the record three times explaining that he was not anti-vaccine, he simply had legitimate scientific concerns which Niac also took very seriously.

Another student was told that if she really loved nursing, she would take the vaccine, a bizarre 2021 twist on the kind of emotional blackmail which says “if you loved me, you would have sex with me”.

Consent under duress is no consent at all.

Students in medicine, physiotherapy, nursing, occupational therapy, radiography, dentistry, speech and language therapy, counselling, social work and psychotherapy have received similar treatment. Legitimate concerns, including the impact of the vaccine on pre-existing medical conditions, have been brushed aside in a very intimidating way.

Banded together

Feeling exposed and vulnerable due to their lack of power in the health system, some of the students banded together as the Higher Education Informed (HEI) Consent Group.

The HSE insists that vaccination was never mandatory and that it was about protecting patients, not punishing students. This rings hollow to the HEI Consent Group, some of whom felt their mental health was buckling under the stress.

Currently, the HSE has suspended the ban on unvaccinated students taking up placements, but no one knows for how long.

These students have received very little political support, aside from TDs such as Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín and Independent Michael MacNamara. The students have been caricatured as Covid-deniers or anti-vaxxers, even by their fellow students. All they were attempting to do was to follow their training: read the research and then make informed and responsible decisions.

Meanwhile, people desperate to be vaccinated, including one woman living alone and aged 92 in Co Meath, have been unable to access the vaccine. The lack of any kind of a properly functioning patient database means that many slip through the cracks.

This columnist is not anti-vaccine, either, and in fact is infuriated that colleagues, especially special needs assistants working in unprotected conditions in schools, cannot access it. Informed consent, however, is a vital human right that must be protected.

Vaccination programmes work best when there is high trust in the system, something which is currently impossible given how chaotic, incoherent and – in some cases – coercive it currently is.

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