Hesitant No MoreOctober 29, 2021
How 1199 Vaccine Champions worked to change members’ minds.
From the moment COVID-19 vaccines became available last December, 1199SEIU has been urging its members to get the injection to protect themselves and their families against the deadly pathogen. The Union immediately organized virtual conversations with thousands of members, with medical doctors on hand to answer their scientific questions. Many 1199ers took the opportunity to get vaccinated as soon as they could.
But there were a few members who remained hesitant even as winter turned to summer and the more contagious Delta variant created a new surge in virus cases. Recognizing the urgency of overcoming those members’ concerns, the union put together a team of Vaccine Champions—members who spoke directly to their fellow 1199ers about the safety and value of the injection.
Anthony DeVivo, a Unit Assistant in Labor and Delivery at New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYPH), was eager to sign up. He got vaccinated back in January after people who were very close to his family passed away from the virus. “Of all the co-workers I spoke to in August, I’d say only two or three were genuinely scared,” says DeVivo, “The rest were just listening to rumors. A lot of what we did was give them the scientific information, which disproved the rumors. These are the ingredients of the vaccine. You can look them all up.”
There were 15 members on the Vaccine Champions team at NYPH, and between them they spoke to well over 100 fellow healthcare workers. “You might not like being told what to do with your body, I told them, but it is the safest thing you can do right now,” says DeVivo. When he spoke to members who were afraid of getting the shot, DeVivo offered to go with them, and half a dozen members took him up on it.
In Florida, where vaccination rates are generally much lower than in New York, the Union teamed with Broward County officials and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church for a free vaccination event that was held in early September. The event targeted Hollywood-area residents, but it was also open to anyone.
Penny Ceasar, an 1199 Unit Clerk at Westside Regional Medical Center in Plantation, Florida, got vaccinated months before. She volunteered for the Hollywood vaccine event because she has seen firsthand the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “I see it daily, people trying to get their breath, and that’s such a horrible feeling.
It’s like drowning in your own body. Who wants to go through that? Take the vaccine, protect yourself so you don’t have to go through that, and your loved ones don’t have to go through it,” said Ceasar.
Massachusetts member Anestine Bentick, a Lead Medical Assistant at South Boston Community Health Center, was initially hesitant to get vaccinated herself. As a Caribbean woman, she was uneasy about the United States history of medically mistreating Black people. She was especially skeptical of vaccines that were developed and approved so quickly through a federal program called Operation Warp Speed. “That name alone turned me off,” Bentick said. But having seen the virus’s debilitating effect on patients, she eventually decided it was better to get vaccinated. Pretty soon Bentick went a step further, and became a Vaccine Ambassador in Boston, where she has been convincing coworkers and patients to protect themselves and their loved ones.
“ A lot of what we did was give them the scientific information, which disproved the rumors.”
– Anthony DeVivo, Unit Assistant in Labor and Delivery at New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYPH)
For 1199 Home Care members in New York, because they were not attached to hospitals, it was often more difficult to access the vaccines in the early days. The union worked with NYC and hospitals to make thousands of vaccine appointments for Home Care members to make sure they were able to get the protection they needed. Deborah O’Bryant, who works at Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, made sure she was at the front of the line.
“I remember what it was like last year,” she said, “It was really scary leaving my house. It felt like I was the only one out on the street when I left my apartment. An elderly couple who’d lived in my building both passed away from the virus. I lost my nephew and cousin too. I tell everyone I meet to get vaccinated.”
O’Bryant’s son lives in Florida and has a 15-month-old baby girl. “It’s important that more people get vaccinated so that I can go down to Florida and hug my granddaughter for the first time.”
“ It’s important that more people get vaccinated so that I can go down to Florida and hug my granddaughter for the first time.”
– Deborah O’Bryant, Home Health Aide from the Bronx, NY