ROME — Giulio Macciò tested negative for the coronavirus and spent weeks receiving treatment for emphysema in a sealed-off hospital under the care of doctors and lung specialists — and a nurse who had refused to be vaccinated. On March 11, he unexpectedly died. A post-mortem swab found that he had contracted the virus, as had 14 other patients and the unvaccinated nurse who spent her shifts in his midst.
“It makes no sense that a person whose job is to heal the sick gives them Covid and kills them,” said Mr. Macciò’s son, Massimiliano Macciò, who filed a complaint against the San Martino hospital in the northern Italian city of Genoa. He believes that the nurse, one of an estimated 400 who have refused vaccination against Covid-19 at the hospital, infected his father, who died unvaccinated at 79.
As vaccination rollouts build momentum, businesses everywhere are grappling with whether they can require the inoculation of their employees, raising thorny ethical, constitutional and privacy issues around Europe and the United States. But that quandary becomes all the more urgent when the person is your health care worker.
In Italy, the original Western front in the war against Covid, a rash of outbreaks in hospitals where medical workers have chosen not to be inoculated has raised fears that their stance is endangering public health. It has also prompted a forceful response from an Italian government that is struggling to get vaccinations on track.
“It’s really humiliating for the medical and health worker class that you have to force people to vaccinate themselves,” said Roberto Burioni, a virologist at San Raffaele University in Milan.
He added that while firing workers is exceedingly difficult in Italy, he hoped the decree will bite into the salaries of any vaccine skeptics, especially considering the large amount of data demonstrating that the vaccines’ efficacy is worth the risk. He also worried that the high number of health professionals refusing to get vaccinated had troubling implications.
“Unfortunately there is huge part of doctors who are deeply ignorant,” said Mr. Burioni, who suggested that perhaps “the selection process for bringing people to gain a medical degree and then the medical license is not effective enough.”
While Italy’s populists, including the Five Star Movement and League parties, exploited vaccine skepticism for political gain in recent years, the country is not even considered the most vaccine-skeptic in Europe, a dubious distinction that usually falls to France. Italy also had a fast start in vaccinations at the beginning of the year precisely because the previous government prioritized medical workers.
In a nursing home outside Rome, nearly all of the health care workers chose not to be vaccinated, and a cluster erupted around three workers and 27 out of the 36 older guests. Roberto Agresti, the home’s owner, feared the worst for them. “If we had a law forcing everyone to get vaccinated, the virus would have passed without us even noticing it,” he said.
In the southern city of Brindisi, the local health authority has opened disciplinary proceedings against 12 health care workers who expressly refused vaccination. It is also investigating why about 140 health care workers, including doctors, nurses, pediatricians and specialists, declined shots of the Pfizer vaccine.
“We don’t want to punish workers — we need them,” said Giuseppe Pasqualone, who leads the local health authority. “But the risk of contagion not only for them but for fragile patients is very high.”
Officials at the San Martino hospital, where Mr. Macciò died, said it was not clear whether the unvaccinated nurse was the source of the cluster, but they acknowledged that it was a problem.