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Fran Drescher’s call to review vaccine mandates sparks debate inside SAG-AFTRA

A woman smiles while wearing a gray suit jacket.
Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, called for a meeting of her union’s national board Saturday to discuss alternative evidence on whether to continue supporting vaccine requirements on film and TV sets.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP)
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It has been two years since Hollywood first implemented rules to help limit the spread of COVID-19 on film sets.

By most accounts, the industry’s pandemic measures have worked, limiting the spread of the virus from film productions, according to data from the Motion Picture Assn.

But as the pandemic abates, the ongoing requirements — including vaccine mandates and social distancing rules — have triggered intense discussions inside Hollywood’s biggest union over whether and when those rules should be lifted as the film and TV industry looks to return to normal.

Tensions came to a head last weekend after SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher called a special meeting to discuss lifting vaccine mandates and other measures.

Prior to the Saturday board meeting, board members were given contrasting video presentations by two experts with opposing views on vaccines.

In one video, Drescher and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director, interviewed controversial Yale professor Dr. Harvey Risch, who questioned the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters against the current COVID-19 variant.

In another video presentation, Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland interviewed David Michaels, a consultant epidemiologist retained by the union. He supported the ongoing use of COVID-19 measures, including mask requirements and the use of zones for social distancing.

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After four hours of discussions, the nearly 80-member board did not make any changes to policies.

“SAG-AFTRA’s National Board today conducted an extensive discussion regarding its position on production-by-production employer vaccine mandates,” the union said in a statement Saturday. “The board concluded its meeting without taking any action to modify the existing policy supporting the employer’s ability to implement such mandates subject to the protective provisions contained in the return to work agreement.”

The debate raises the question of how long Hollywood producers and unions will keep the costly and time-consuming measures in place. Representatives of both sides recently began negotiations to extend the Return to Work Agreement that expires Sept. 30.

SAG-AFTRA declined to comment. A spokesperson for Drescher said she was unavailable.

To some, the wrangling over vaccines is frustrating.

“SAG-AFTRA has continued to see a small but vocal minority spread misinformation that certainly makes it harder to do the work of the union,” said one board member, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to comment. “That has been a challenge for the union overall. The National Board has been consistent. The union has continued to keep people safe and get people back to work.”

However, Drescher, by opening the topic to debate, is giving a voice to members who feel aggrieved by the use of the mandates.

Joely Fisher, secretary-treasurer for the National Board, who attended the meeting, said SAG-AFTRA needs to form a task force to address the needs of unvaccinated members.

“What it shows me is we’re not doing good enough,” Fisher said in an interview. She said the union could form a task force to assist “members who are suffering, who are not getting their accommodations either seen by studios, or were getting their accommodations ignored by studios, and this has hurt them.”

In her position on vaccine mandates, Drescher appears at odds with the union she now leads — and the slate she heads, the Unite for Strength group that holds a majority of seats on the National Board.

Last month, the “Nanny” star and cancer survivor raised her concerns about giving studio employers the right to require workers on film and TV shows to be vaccinated, in a letter published in the union’s magazine. Although she said she was vaccinated, she called the move “a slippery slope.”

Drescher said that she had supported the initial move to require vaccinations but that the unions should review new evidence about the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters.

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“What’s next, we can’t work without a monkeypox vaccine?” Drescher asked, calling for members to educate themselves on the newest science. “The allowance that we have granted the employers walks on a razor’s edge of compromising religious, disability and body sovereignty FREEDOMS.”

Drescher has appeared to support controversial views on the virus. In public posts on Instagram and Twitter that remain online, she has linked the coronavirus to 5G technology. The World Health Organization has said there is no link between the virus and 5G telecommunications.

Risch, Drescher’s choice for the presentation, has also drawn controversy. He is a professor emeritus of epidemiology in the department of epidemiology and public health at the Yale School of Public Health and Yale School of Medicine, and was criticized during the pandemic by other Yale professors for supporting the use of Hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19.

In 2020, the dean of the Yale School of Public Health called Risch a distinguished cancer epidemiologist and said he supported academic discourse, but added there was evidence the drug was “ineffective and potentially risky.”

Risch said via email to The Times that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously had guided in August that two doses of the vaccines do not prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission, and boosters only provide “transient” and waning benefit.

He also stood by his verdict on the benefits of Hydroxychloroquine.

The CDC said earlier this month that it recommended the use of updated boosters.

During Saturday’s meeting, Crabtree-Ireland argued that only about 25% of productions required vaccinations, suggesting that there were ample work opportunities for those who chose not to be vaccinated, according to a person who attended the meeting.

The union released a 27-page list of shows that have implemented vaccine requirements for members of its cast and crew, including 20th Century Fox’s “9-1-1: Lone Star,” ABC’s “General Hospital” and NBCUniversal’s “The Equalizer.”

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