Nursing was her dream – until she decided not to get the COVID-19 vaccine

CNA from Joliet nursing home refuses COVID vaccine and tells why

Nina McDonald of Morris said she has worked as a certified nurse assistant at the former Symphony of Joliet – now called Salud Wellness – for nearly six years.

But that’s going to change soon.

On Tuesday, Natalie Bauer Luce said in an email that “Symphony is going to comply with President Biden’s vaccine requirement for all staff members.”

“They are quickly working on scheduling additional rounds of vaccinations on site for employees,” Luce said in the email.

The “Symphony” name changed as a part of a “renovation, rebranding and service expansion to provide more memory care and substance abuse services,” along qwith a new behavioral health program, Luce wrote on Tuesday.

Several wrongful death lawsuits were filed against Symphony in 2020 over the COVID-related deaths of residents, court records show.

McDonald most likely won’t see these new services and programs. McDonald, who said she has worked with COVID patients since the beginning of the pandemic, is refusing to get the COVID vaccine, which means the company will consider her to have “voluntarily resigned,” she said.

The vaccination rate at Salud Wellness on Thursday was 72.92% for residents and 75% for staff, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health website. The total number of cases since the pandemic began was 79 for residents - with 26 deaths and 63 for staff - with two deaths, according to IDPH. No cases for either residents or staff were currently reported, although McDonald said she was home for 14 days after being exposed to COVID from an incoming resident.

Luce said in an email on Friday that a deadline is not yet set for getting the vaccine, that the facility is waiting for additional information from the federal agencies and that it will comply with Thursday’s state mandate for workers in communal settings. But getting the COVID shot is now required to work at the company, Luce said.

McDonald said the vaccine should not be mandated.

“I believe 100% that we should be able to choose what goes into our body,” McDonald said.

Luce wrote on Friday that more than 300 million vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S., which shows the vaccines are “safe and highly effective at preventing severe illness and death from COVID-19.”

The company also plans to set up phone and email lines to to answer questions and address concerns and host informational sessions, Luce said.

Good-bye to a dream

McDonald said her ultimate goal is to be a nurse. She became a CNA at age 16 through Wilco Area Career Center in Romeoville when she was attending Romeoville High School, she said.

“The more I did it, the more I came to love and appreciate it,” McDonald said. “I knew I could go to work and make somebody else’s day wonderful.”

But with this vaccine mandate, McDonald said she will never become a nurse. She said the nursing home always talks about respecting the residents’ rights. But staff rights should get the same respect, she said.

“Maybe it’s a sign I should step back from health care,” McDonald said. “If we [staff] don’t talk now, if we don’t say something now, who is going to stand up for us?”

McDonald said Symphony never mandated any vaccine before mandating the COVID vaccines, not even the flu vaccine, which McDonald doesn’t get either. Employees who don’t get the flu shot must wear a face mask during flu season, which she does, McDonald said.

Luce said in an email on Friday that the facility holds annual campaigns “to encourage and facilitate staff getting vaccinated.”

“I’m all about taking care of my patients,” McDonald said. “I do anything to make sure my patients are cared for. But I will have the right to say what goes into my body.”

During COVID, McDonald wore an N95 mask and later a surgical mask and face shield once they were required. When entering the room of a COVID patient, McDonald also wears a plastic gown, gloves and booties over her shoes, she said.

McDonald said she’s worked on a transitional unit – where patients first stay when they come into the facility – since the beginning of the pandemic, except for three months when she took time off because her mother was sick and could not watch McDonald’s four children.

About four months ago, McDonald returned to the nursing home after it offered her bonus, McDonald said. So now McDonald just works weekends, when her husband is home to watch their children, age 13, 8, 6 and 3.

McDonald said cases decreased at Symphony once residents and staff were vaccinated.

“Honestly, I think they would have come down anyway,” McDonald said. “I feel like our bodies would be able to fight this off.”

McDonald feels that’s especially true for younger people. She said when her 13-year-old had brain cancer 12 years ago – which included a year of chemotherapy, a month of radiation and two craniotomies to remove the tumor – McDonald was told to quarantine him. She refused.

“I didn’t want my son to live his last days in a room,” she said. “I let him be a kid. I made sure he was clean but he was outside playing with all his family members. I didn’t hide him from germs.”

McDonald said he is now cancer-free and takes no medicine, she said. In the early days of the pandemic, McDonald said she would take her clothes off at the door and buy inexpensive shoes she could discard after two weeks to help keep her family safe.

By taking precautions, McDonald said her immediate family has stayed COVID-free. When her mother was sick, McDonald helped care for her father and a disabled brother. Neither McDonald, nor her parents, four siblings and 17 nieces and nephews have received the vaccine or tested positive for COVID, she said.

“For now, I think I’m going to step back from taking care of other people and take care of myself and my family,” McDonald said. “I’ve never been a stay-at-home mom. Maybe I’ll do that for a while.”

McDonald said she is currently off work for 14 days after being exposed to a recently admitted patient who tested positive for COVID. Luce said in an email on Friday that a staff member also tested positive for COVID.

“These cases were detected using Symphony’s standard testing regimen for new admissions, and both individuals were immediately isolated under the guidance of our COVID-19 task force, which continually monitors and updates our infectious disease protocols based on the latest recommendations from federal and state public health authorities,” Luce wrote on Friday. “When a potential exposure is detected at the facility, those individuals are immediately quarantined for the mandated isolation period.”

Denise  Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.