ROME—The wilting flowers piled up outside the Todis grocery store in Rome are yet another tribute to a store clerk who lost their battle with COVID-19 since the pandemic began more than a year ago. A few blocks down the road, at a nursing home facility, there are flowers, too. But these are for the residents who died after a no-vax nurse accidentally infected more than a dozen people after refusing to get inoculated in January.
Grocery staffs are not even on the horizon when it comes to the front-line workers being offered COVID-19 vaccines. By contrast, healthcare workers were the first to be offered a shot when Italy rolled out its vaccination campaign in late December. But hundreds of nurses have refused to get inoculated, reportedly causing scores of COVID outbreak clusters and untold deaths.
At least three lawsuits are underway across the country over no-vax healthcare workers fatally infecting people they were caring for. At the San Martino Policlinico hospital in Genoa, 400 nurses have refused to get vaccinated, leading to at least two separate clusters. The son of one man who tested positive after his death is suing the hospital since the nurse who looked after him was a vocal anti-vaxxer.
Outbreaks at both a care home and hospital in the town of Lavagna, Liguria, are also tied to non-vaccinated health staff, according to the local health authority there. “A hospital cluster, generated, at least so it seems from the first investigations, by unvaccinated health personnel, who unknowingly brought a ward virus and caused nine positive patients,” Giovanni Toti, the regional governor testified in support of mandating vaccines to healthcare workers. Similar outbreaks have occurred in Calabria, Puglia, and Campania–all in hospitals and care centers with high incidences of staff refusing vaccines.
On Wednesday, Italy’s newly minted prime minister Mario Draghi passed a decree that now requires all healthcare workers to be vaccinated—or be suspended without pay.
The move is significant in a vaccine-hesitant country that only introduced mandatory measles vaccines for school children in 2017, brought on by a country-wide outbreak. Add to that the debacle of the AstraZeneca rollout, which was suspended across Europe after unfounded suspicions that it causes blood clots.
Still, there are thousands of people in Italy who would give anything for a shot, including hundreds of people over the age of 80 who have still not been called up for their first dose due to supply problems. Draghi decided that going forward, the vaccine would be rolled out by age group rather than employment sector after healthcare workers, including pharmacists, and educators of all levels as well as lawyers, judges, police, and prison guards were given the first opportunities. Groups supporting grocery store workers feel their sector will now be forgotten since most clerks are well under the age threshold now being offered vaccines. Add to that the thousands of grocery store clerks who have been infected and hundreds who have died, according to the primary union for the sector. “In the middle is a list of invisible deaths, hidden and never emphasized so as not to disturb the staggering profits of the multinationals of the trade,“ Francesco Iacovone, a trade unionist said Wednesday, referring to grocery store companies who are accused of not lobbying for vaccines for their workers who are offered only surgical masks as protection.
Both sides are angry. The no-vax health care workers argue that their privacy rights are being violated by being required to get a vaccine—or outed if they refuse. And the grocery store workers say their rights are being violated by not being offered one despite being front-line workers with no protection.
Maurizio Zega, head of the Order of Nursing Professionals of Rome, agrees with the mandate. He says that any medical professional who refuses a vaccine “chose the wrong job.” He also supports grocery store workers and those who prepare food in being next in line for a shot.
Zega welcomes the mandate for health care workers as a way to legally punish those who had previously refused the vaccine. Prior to the mandate, many doctors refused to work with no-vax nurses, and vice versa, but there was no legal tool to remove them from hospitals or care homes. “Nobody questions individual freedom but, certainly, the choice not to get vaccinated is not compatible with health care. Patient safety must remain in the foreground,” he said after Draghi announced the decree. “If a professional has to assist a sick person, he or she must meet certain requirements. And if one of these requirements is, in a pandemic, anti-COVID vaccination, that becomes a fundamental element. We ask the pilot not to drink alcohol before the flight. It is an essential requirement. So is the vaccine.”