Unvaccinated French health care workers face suspension

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A medical worker holds a placard reading : “Money for Hospital, Not for the Capital, Our Solution Hospitals beds, Employs and quick”, during a protest gathering outside the Health Ministry, in Paris, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 against a law requiring them to get vaccinated by Wednesday or risk suspension from their jobs. The law is aimed at protecting patients from new surges of COVID-19. Most of the French population is vaccinated but a vocal minority are against the vaccine mandate. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

PARIS (AP) — Health care workers in France face suspension from their jobs starting Wednesday if they haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19. With as many as 300,000 workers still not vaccinated, some hospitals fear staff shortages will add to their strain.

Vaccines are now compulsory for medical care, home care and emergency workers in France, and Wednesday is the deadline for such staff to have had at least one shot. Failing that, they face having pay suspended or not being able to work. But a top court has forbidden staff to be fired outright.

The mandate was approved by France’s parliamentover the summer to protect patients and the public from new surges of COVID-19. More than 113,000 people with the virus have died in France, and health authorities say most of those hospitalized in the most recent surge weren’t vaccinated.

“It’s aimed at one thing: protecting hospitals, protecting health care workers, protecting our fragile populations,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Wednesday. “We are not stigmatizing anyone. We are making everyone take responsibility.”

More than 90% of French health care workers are vaccinated, Attal said, and polls suggest most people support the vaccine mandate for medical staff. The government health authority said Tuesday that means about 300,000 health workers remained unvaccinated.

While 83% of French adults are fully vaccinated, a small, vocal minority of people are opposed to the coronavirus vaccines, including some health care workers.

Many cite incorrect information about the vaccines circulating online, worry about their long-term effects or want more time to decide. Others are angry at President Emmanuel Macron’s government and the mandate, not the vaccines themselves.

Since some hospitals are already facing strains after a year and half of fighting the pandemic and catching up on other treatments, some who oppose the vaccine requirement fear staff shortages could spell disaster.

“We are raising the alarm … if you insist on implementing this measure your beds will be closed, thus reducing chances (of survival) for a number of patients,” said Christophe Prudhomme, emergency room doctor and CGT union member, at a protest outside the Health Ministry on Tuesday.

If health care workers have had only one dose so far, they have to take a virus test every three days until they have completed the second one. Oct. 15 is the legal deadline for both vaccines to have been completed.

Firms and employers failing to verify the vaccination statuses of their staff are liable for a 135 euro ($160) fine that can rise to 3,750 euros ($4,430) for repeated failure.

“I am not a revolutionary, I am just afraid and we are thousands in this situation. I want them to listen to us and sit and talk around a table,” said Rachid Ouchem, a medical-psychological assistant at a hospital in Plaisir west of Paris who doesn’t want to be vaccinated and is facing suspension.

“We can’t decide ourselves, we have doubts,” he told The Associated Press. “We had politicians saying one thing and its opposite.”

Scientists note that the vaccines used in France were tested widely and the data shared publicly. Worldwide, 5.7 billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered so far, providing a exceptionally broad overview of vaccines’ impact on people’s health.

The vaccine mandate and France’s “health pass” system required for restaurants and other venues have prompted two months of weekly protests by far-right activists and some other groups. They also spurred a spike in vaccinations through the summer, though the pace has slowed this month.

While French Polynesia is suffering the country’s worst outbreak so far, France’s South Pacific territory of New Caledonia has ordered obligatory vaccinations for the whole population to try to avoid a similar fate.

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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