PITTSFIELD — Berkshire Health Systems will no longer require its 4,000-member workforce to receive the bivalent booster against the coronavirus, ending a mandate that drew resistence, including an online petition signed by 890 people that accused the company of bullying workers.
The nonprofit announced Monday it had dropped the booster mandate. In a statement, BHS said that while data on the effectiveness of the booster shows it to be effective at greatly reducing the severity of illness, “it may be less effective at preventing transmission of the virus.”
For that reason, masking and other measures will be needed in the months ahead to contain the spread of COVID-19, the health system said. It operates Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington and other satellite programs.
After the mandate was announced, opposition quickly arose. One BMC nurse told The Eagle that the requirement to receive the booster, by Dec. 15, had prompted her to look for a new job.
The online petition, which has been closed, likened opposition to the requirement to efforts to preserve abortion access: “The same way our country has come to rally around abortion rights, we are simply asking the same … ‘My body, my choice.’ ”
Tanya Panetti, the BMC nurse who started the petition, said she met Friday with CEO Darlene Rodowicz about the mandate. At that session, officials reviewed studies regarding the booster’s reduced effectiveness in preventing contagion.
“I commend the hospital for staying up to date on the most recent research, as well as Darlene Rodowicz for her efforts in going around speaking to employees about their needs and feelings throughout this process,” Panetti said in a message to The Eagle. “She has been a welcome addition to the role of CEO and I look forward to more good things.”
The petition said that some BMC workers objected to earlier mandates, after vaccines appeared in 2021, but went along.
“Many of us went against our values, some of us suffered terrible long term health consequences and many of us left the company due to the BMC’s failure to take medical and religious exemptions seriously,” the petition said.
Opponents also cited the fact that the bivalent booster is not effective at reducing transmission of the disease — a point BHS concedes in its statement Monday.
“Many of us were willing to sacrifice our bodies to help protect our patients, but ... that is not what we are doing now,” the petition said. “This most recent vaccine mandate is nothing more than bullying by an employer for profit.”
In its announcement Monday, the company said its COVID-19 policies are designed to protect employees and the public, based on “the latest scientific information, laws, regulations, and guidance from public health agencies, and other important factors.”
The hospital said that newer coronavirus variants, including BQ.1, BQ.1.1, and BA.4.6, are likely to be prevalent in the region this fall and winter.
The Berkshire Eagle sat down this week with Dr. James Lederer of Berkshire Medical Center to discuss COVID-19 trends, the start of the flu season and what people can do to protect their health.
“This new data is significant and shows the bivalent booster to be effective at reducing the severity of the COVID illness by as much as 70-80 percent, but that it may be less effective at preventing transmission of the virus,” the BHS statement said.
The company said that reality of a booster that is less helpful in preventing transmission led to its change in policy.
The information, it said, “requires that we renew our focus on masking and other similar protocols as the primary measures to protect patients and co-workers from transmission.”
“We are withdrawing the bivalent booster requirement put in place on Oct. 24, effective immediately,” the statement said. “We continue to strongly recommend that all BHS employees and patients be vaccinated with the bivalent booster dose in order to best protect their own health.”
This story and headline have been modified to correct the number of BHS employees.