Diane Riddick is a regional vice president of AFGE Local 252 and an investigator with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in Philadelphia. A year after the coronavirus ravaged the entire world, including the United States, she was happy to learn that there were finally vaccines available to help reduce the spread and save lives.
Diane and her sister lived in the same house with their aging parents. When the pandemic hit, their mother had just been diagnosed with two types of cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. According to health officials, she was immunocompromised and at high risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19. Her father also had some health issues that would put him in a high-risk category. So, the sisters knew that if they somehow got infected, they would likely endanger their parents' lives.
When the vaccines became available early 2021, Diane scrambled to make an appointment for her parents. Unfortunately, where they live in Wyncote, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, there were not enough vaccines to go around. Even her parents’ doctors didn’t have the vaccines. Philadelphia had a big stockpile, but because so many people came, it prompted local officials to tell non-residents to stay away so they could save the vaccines for Philadelphia residents only.
Diane heard from a colleague that the vaccine was plentiful in Harrisburg, which was an hour and a half away. She made an appointment on a Thursday and drove her parents there that weekend. Because they had enough shots, she and her sister got vaccinated too. They told her to tell other people to come. So, she took the doctors’ advice and encouraged friends and family to get a shot, knowing that, because of their parents’ condition, they wouldn’t be able to get together if any one of them was not vaccinated.
“My main reason for getting vaccinated is because my parents are elderly. My sister and I are their primary caregivers and it’s important for us to do everything we can to keep them safe,” she said.
She already plans to get a booster shot and is urging others to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others. Most of her colleagues are vaccinated. “It’s a no brainer.”
Indeed, the Department of Education’s vaccination rate is very high. About 95% of the entire workforce have reported their vaccination status.
But still, there have been a lot of problems in Texas where Sheria Smith, president of AFGE Local 252 representing Department of Education employees nationwide, lives. Hospitalization and death rates in Texas remain high while the vaccination rate remains low: only 52.7%.
When the vaccines became more widely available in April this year, she was eager to get vaccinated because there was no mask or social distancing requirement where she lives.
“I thought vaccination was necessary to protect myself, because there was no other type of safety requirement mandated,” she explained.
As an avid traveler, the vaccine is also a passport that allows her to travel to other countries. After being vaccinated, she has been to Tanzania and Puerto Rico. She is planning a trip to Paris at Thanksgiving and a trip with her mom to Japan next year. “You can’t go anywhere outside the U.S. if you’re not vaccinated.”
Sheria’s local is in the process of negotiating the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate with the Department of Education. Even though the vaccination rate in her agency is very high, she wanted to make sure the mandate procedure is carried out fairly and properly.
For example, the local wants to make sure that reasonable accommodation determinations are done by people who are properly trained and not necessarily the first-line supervisors. The local is proposing that those who fail to comply with the vaccine mandate are allowed to resign with a clean record and that any disciplinary action does not start while people are on leave.
In Las Vegas, Joseph Gerideau, a vice president of AFGE Local 1224 who works at the Veterans Affairs hospital, got his shots in March. A lot of events in Las Vegas, like football games, require proof of vaccination, so that was one of the reasons he got a shot. The main reason, though, was because he wanted to protect others by reducing his chance of catching and spreading the virus.
“I did the only thing I could do. I was trying to do my part,” he explained. “I’ve been a medical professional, so I know that nothing is 100%. There’s no guarantee. But at least do what you can when you have options. Make an attempt. I wear my mask and I got my shot.”
Joseph said at his facility, the majority of employees are vaccinated. Only one or two couldn’t get vaccinated due to health reasons.
Las Vegas VA was the hospital that took in the first known COVID victim in Nevada, and the patient lived – a fact that he took pride in as a fellow veteran. He said most of VA employees there are veterans, and the desire to protect other vets is intense.
When asked if he’s encouraging his friends and family to get vaccinated, he said his family is vaccinated.
“I’m encouraging everyone to get vaccinated,” he said. “I don’t know why people are so hesitant. I think some people just don’t like being told what to do. I hope that’s what it is, but I hope they reconsider.”