Midwives who would rather quit their jobs than get vaccinated against COVID-19 are urging the Government to rethink its vaccine mandate for the health workforce.
But COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins isn't budging, saying it's essential that people who work with children are vaccinated in order to keep them safe.
Ten of Taranaki District Health Board's 63 registered midwives have said they won't be getting vaccinated against the deadly disease, effectively ending their careers.
The Government has said it will mandate vaccination for the entire frontline health workforce. First doses are expected by October 30, and second by December 1. Workers in managed isolation and quarantine facilities and those on the border have been under a vaccine mandate for months now, and legal challenges to the order have failed. Exemptions from the existing order can be granted by the Minister of Health.
Midwife Angela Worthington says conversations with her 55 clients have "been nothing but tears and heartache" since Monday's announcement from Hipkins, and she's had trouble sleeping since.
"When you're a midwife, you value your sleep, Worthington says. "I know when I've been speaking with colleagues this week, you know, not many of us have been able to eat much this week. The weight of this is huge."
She won't reveal her reasons for not getting the vaccine, which has proven to be incredibly safe and highly effective at preventing serious illness over the past year. Side effects are incredibly rare, and just a single death has been causally linked in New Zealand after more than 6.1 million doses, a mortality rate 35,000 times lower than COVID itself.
"We have for decades now talked to women about 'your body, your choice'," she said. "But these messages... that have come through loud and clear are now not being applied to us as a workforce."
Worthington said she feels so strongly about "bodily autonomy" she's willing to walk, despite being her family's main income earner. And she's not the only one. The DHB confirmed at least nine others are quitting, Worthington says that'll leave "around 290 families" looking for new midwives.
"It's not just the community midwives as well, it's the core staff," Worthington says. "There are a number of core staff who will walk in next year... I actually don't know how the DHB will function with that loss."
Sorcha Wolnik used to work with Worthington. She was planning to go back to being a midwife, but now won't. She also won't say why.
"I would strongly ask Chris and the Government to reconsider this mandate," Wolnik says. "It's always difficult to roll back something that has been announced."
Hipkins said the decision, which also affects the education workforce, wasn't made lightly.
"We have to recognise that those working in the health sector, those working in education, are dealing with very vulnerable people, many who can't be vaccinated. So we need to make sure that we're providing as much protection as possible," Hipkins says.
"Yes, vaccination is an individual choice - it is your body - but ultimately your decisions and your choices have an impact on other people, so the requirements to be vaccinated to do certain jobs recognises that."
Hipkins said officials are closely following how many in the health and education workforces are resisting vaccination, but so far there's "no evidence" to suggest it'll exacerbate existing shortages.
"Ultimately we have to consider the public health risk here."
Hipkins said discussions were also being held with teachers' unions on what to do with staff who refuse vaccination.
"There will be some redeployment opportunities.. but there may not be roles for everybody."
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