EASTON — A group of health care workers and their supporters gathered early Monday morning outside of the hospital in Easton to protest a COVID vaccine mandate for the employees of the University of Maryland Medical System.

More than 60 people including some doctors, nurses and others working in the medical field were joined at the protest on Monday, Aug. 23, by other supporters in holding protest signs next to the “Home of the Brave” sign in front of UM Shore Medical Center at Easton (part of the same hospital system in Cambridge), with the numbers of the crowd fluctuating as some people left to start their shift and others arrived after their shift ended.

The protesters gathered to oppose an Oct. 1 deadline for UMMS employees to be fully vaccinated by one of the three COVID vaccines, voicing concerns about the vaccine and the mandate they say pits their judgment and freedom against their livelihoods. A number of major hospital systems in Maryland and across the country are requiring coronavirus vaccines for staff, visiting physicians and nurses and contractors.

Event organizer Dawn Foster said she created the protest, “To get people’s voice out, to show how many people it was affecting.”

Foster said she received messages from many workers not able to attend the rally because they were caring for patient when the rally was scheduled.

Criticisms of the required shots included the side effects and possible long term effects. “It’s too new,” said a protester who asked not be named. “The side effects are still coming out,” said another. “You can still get COVID and spread it (while vaccinated),” said a third.

Public health officials counter those concerns saying fully vaccinated persons are far less likely to contract COVID than the unvaccinated and have less severe reactions to the virus.

“If you haven’t yet been vaccinated against COVID-19, I urge you to get vaccinated. It could keep you out of the hospital. It could save your life,” said U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, in a statement on Aug. 20.

Many of the protesters were willing to speak, and most asked not to be identified by name. “All I am to them (UMMS) is a number,” said one protester.

Others emphasized that they see the mandates as an infringement on individual freedom. “The efficacy and safety of the vaccine aside, it’s un-American to get somebody do something against their will and better judgment,” said a protester, “It’s a violation against people’s basic rights.”

“Being forced to go against one’s better judgement used to be called coercion and extortion, now it’s called ‘following the science,’” the health care worker said.

“We as nurses are taught very early in that patients have medical autonomy — you respect their decisions,” said one provider.

Another provider echoed that sentiment: “We take care of sick people and we’re trained to think critically, the derogatory term ‘anti-vaxxers’ is extremely wrong.”

Backers of vaccine mandates — especially in health care settings — argue they are needed to protect public health and vulnerable patients.

Several health care workers at the protest were adamant they were not taking the vaccine, even if it meant their employment status would change.

“We’re not quitting, we’re going to be fired,” said one nurse emphatically, “We’re not quitters.”

Health care worker Cristi Brohawn said she disagreed with the discrepancy between the UMMS policy of mandatory vaccination and the state mandate to either receive the vaccine or regular testing.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has mandated COVID vaccines for nursing home and hospital workers with those not getting shots having to undergo regular testing and wear masks and other protective gear.

The hospital system released a statement in response to the protest outlining its vaccine policy.

“The University of Maryland Medical System, including UM Shore Regional Health, has consistently adjusted our COVID-19 response to meet the changing nature of the virus. Our commitment to safety for our patients, communities and team members has remained steadfast throughout the pandemic. In recent weeks, across the nation we have seen the impact of the highly transmissible Delta variant driving a rapid increase in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths, especially on those who remain unprotected,” said a statement released in response to the protest.

“Effective October 1, as a condition of employment, all UMMS team members, partners, volunteers and Medical Staff must be fully vaccinated or have an approved exemption. We know that vaccination is the single most effective way of protecting our patients and each other from COVID, and this is in line with our long-standing policies requiring influenza and other vaccinations. While we strongly recommend that pregnant women get vaccinated against COVID, which is in alignment with current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a number of clinical expert groups, UMMS is permitting team members who are currently pregnant to apply for a temporary pregnancy deferral,” the statement concluded.

The American with Disabilities Act allows for medical and religious exemptions from vaccines.

Courts have upheld vaccine mandates imposed by other hospitals and universities as they look to curtail the coronavirus. The U.S. Supreme Court recently turned down a challenge to a vaccine mandate for students and staff implemented by universities in Indiana.

Hogan and public health officials continue to press Marylanders to get COVID vaccines pointing to concerns about the Delta variant and the rise in cases and hospitalizations.

Others at the protest said they were specifically concerned about the abbreviated testing and approval for the shots, and said in their work they encountered patients with side effects.

Hogan also welcomed Monday’s full Food & Drug Administration approvals of the Pfizer vaccine as showing the safety of the shots.

“For people who are still hesitant about getting the vaccine, this is an assurance that it has met the most rigorous standards for safety and effectiveness,” said Hogan who wants to see U.S approvals for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

The COVID vaccines were developed quickly in responses to the pandemic and were given emergency use authorizations by the U.S. government.

“The FDA’s approval of this vaccine is a milestone as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. While this and other vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D. “While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated. Today’s milestone puts us one step closer to altering the course of this pandemic in the U.S.”

Multiple protesters at the Easton rally said health care workers should be able to decline the shot and keep their job. “It’s our choice — mask us, test us, let us work,” one nurse said before she left to start her shift.

“I finally got my dream job, and I’m getting ready to lose it because I don’t want a vaccine in my body that has adverse side effects,” said another.

“If we walk away, everyone that is left will be short staffed,” said another protester. “Everyone is already short staffed,” came a response.

One worker said she saw the struggle as more than just her right to choose: “I know if I don’t stand up now, my kids will be next.”

As the protest began at about 6 a.m., two security personnel addressed the protesters who had arrived and politely asked them to stay off of the sidewalk in order to be safe next to a busy roadway and to comply with town protest permit guidelines. “Nobody’s taking pictures, nobody’s taking any names,” he told them. “HR understands,” he said.

Mike Detmer is a staff writer for the Dorchester Star and Star Democrat based in Maryland. You can reach him at mdetmer@chespub.com.

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