Around a hundred people gathered on the sidewalk in front of Duke University Hospital Friday morning to protest hospitals in North Carolina making vaccines mandatory for all of their workers as a condition of employment.
The protesters, some of them health care and facility workers for Duke hospitals, contend that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate from hospitals infringes on the freedom of choice and personal health of hospital workers by forcing them to get the shot.
All three Duke Health hospitals and UNC Health Hospitals in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Siler City and Johnston County announced this month they will require vaccination, The News & Observer reported last week.
Andrew Mitchell, a surgical technologist at Duke University Hospital, was among the protesters, and as a health-care worker was among the first to be vaccinated in the state in December.
“This is a non-FDA approved vaccination, it’s only approved for emergency use and I find that pretty crazy,” Mitchell, 27, told The N&O. “I really just believe you should have a personal choice with health care and when institutions and the government start making decisions for your own body, I think you’re starting to [get] into an area that is pretty sketchy.”
Mitchell received the first dose of the vaccine, but said he developed severe body pain and other health problems as a result — he refused to get the second dose and fully vaccinate himself.
This decision by hospitals comes as the N.C. Healthcare Association, which represents all 130 hospitals in the state, expressed its support for mandatory vaccination for all health care workers this month.
Opposition to mandate, vaccine itself
In addition to their opposition to a mandate, some of the protesters doubt the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines. They say they see a red flag in pharmaceutical companies being protected from legal liability for adverse effects from the vaccine.
Protesters mostly stood in the heat with signs, with just one passerby stopping to yell at them in a brief verbal confrontation. The crowd held signs that attacked the vaccine with falsehoods and misinformation, such as saying the vaccine is part of a ploy to willfully harm humans.
“I think you will find that the majority of people out here are not ‘anti-vaxxers,’” said Jaima, a health care worker in Wake County who declined to give her last name or reveal her employer. “They are not happy with taking an experimental vaccine that has not had full FDA approval. It has not stood the test of time that all the other vaccines we give and take have, we need more time, we need more research.”
Jaima, who said she has worked with COVID-19 patients since last year, is not vaccinated and believes that the best protection for health care workers is personal protective equipment, in addition to temporary protection from a previous infection.
“We have protective gear, we are wearing it, we will continue to wear it,” she said. “N-95s and (face) shields will protect our patients and will protect us.”
As one of the few counter-protesters, Bobbie Caraher stood quietly with a sign in support of mandatory vaccines. Caraher, a retired Duke employee for 20 years, administered vaccines against the virus for months.
“Working in a hospital without being vaccinated just doesn’t make any sense to me because you’re just exposing people to getting sick,” said Caraher. “People say their freedoms are being taken away, but I feel that when you’re affecting the community in this freedom, it’s just not right. I feel like freedom is getting the vaccine, so we can go back to a normal life.”
Vaccination among Duke hospitals
Duke Regional Hospital president Katie Galbraith said in an interview that the influenza vaccine is already a condition of employment for Duke employees.
Roughly 77% of Duke hospital system staff is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, short of an original goal of 90%, and more workers received the shot very recently, according to Galbraith.
“We certainly do recognize that there are team members who have held off (from vaccination) and have their reasons for why they have held off,” she said. “At the end of the day, though, we believe that the COVID-19 vaccine is the best tool we have right now in our fight against COVID. It’s really important when we think of our core value of caring for our patients, their loved ones and each other. To make sure that our patients and our team members are vaccinated is vitally important to us.”
Duke hospital workers can claim limited medical exemptions as well as religious exemptions from getting inoculated by Sep. 21, which is the deadline for unvaccinated employees, she said.
North Carolina hospitals are currently seeing rising numbers of patients ill with the virus and Galbraith said that hospitalizations are on an upward trend as the Delata variant of the virus descends on the state.
About 94% of new cases are among people who are not vaccinated, according to state health officials.