One of Parsia Jahanbani’s biggest fears was realized when a man calling health care workers “murderers” attacked him and other staff members outside a mobile vaccine clinic in Tustin, California, last week, he said.
After a security guard asked the man to wear a mask, he became increasingly angry — claiming medical workers were complicit in a COVID-19 hoax and that “he was ‘not a sheep'” — said Jahanbani, the mobile operations manager for Families Together of Orange County, where the clinic was operating in the parking lot Dec. 30.
As Jahanbani, 37, and a medical assistant approached, the man — identified by police as Thomas Apollo, 43 — launched at them, landing a blow on Jahanbani, he said Tuesday. The medical assistant, who declined to be identified, tried to pull Apollo back and took “a few pretty strong punches” to his head, chest and back, Jahanbani said.
The assistant ended up pinned under Apollo as he delivered punch after punch, Jahanbani said. He said it took five people — including another health care worker and two patients — to pry the man off. About 10 to 20 patients were at the clinic, which has seen a recent surge in demand for vaccines and tests as the Omicron variant continues to drive a rapid increase in cases, said Cassie Rossel, a spokesperson for the community health care center.
It took seven police officers roughly 15 minutes to restrain Apollo, who was “irate and shouting profanities,” Jahanbani said.
Rossel said that the man was shocked with stun guns about three times and that the police were left with scratches on their arms from the encounter. Operations at the mobile clinic shut down for the day.
The medical assistant was taken to the emergency room and returned to work Tuesday looking like “a boxer after a fight,” said Alexander Rossel, chief executive of Families Together.
Lt. Matt Nunley, a spokesperson for the Tustin Police Department, said Apollo was arrested on suspicion of battery and resisting arrest and booked into the Orange County Jail. Apollo of Poway was released the following day, inmate records show. Nunley declined to discuss details of the arrest or confirm eyewitness accounts.
It’s not the first time health care workers at Families Together have experienced blowback since the pandemic began nearly two years ago. Throughout the vaccine rollout, there have been picketers, people yelling from passing cars and many mistrustful and misinformed patients, Jahanbani said. The community health center, which operates another location in Garden Grove, has administered about 50,000 COVID-19 vaccines.
“This one went above and beyond,” Jahanbani said of the recent incident. “It was one of my biggest fears coming true.”
Police were called about three to four months ago when someone in a car began following one of the health care center’s vans and yelling at patients who were being transported inside, said Alexander Rossel, who is Cassie’s father. When children became eligible for vaccines, some people came to the clinic to film “the poor kids” receiving shots, he said.
Rossel said there’s been a “roller coaster” of reactions to health care workers from the public during the pandemic.
“First, we’re heroes. And then somehow we’re not heroes anymore,” Rossel said. “Now we’re the enemies.”
Jahanbani, who has spent two decades working in health care, said the pandemic has been harder on medical workers than the general public.
“We’re the same as other people,” he said. “We have families at home, we have lives, we have children and young children at home, and we’re exposing ourselves to this virus day in, day out.”
In response to the recent attack, the health care center is bringing on additional security.
“But we’re not going to stop,” Alexander Rossel said. “We feel committed to do what we need to do in order to fight this pandemic. Our way to respond is to continue to deliver our services — to continue to do our job.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Jahanbani, who said that alongside the negativity — and now violence — there have been ample patients who have expressed gratitude.
The satisfaction of “knowing that we’re making a difference is far greater than the grief that we get from certain people,” he said. “That’s what makes us have energy to go back to work in the morning and put in a 12-hour shift.”
Story by Lila Seidman, Los Angeles Times.