WINCHESTER — About 100 people protesting Valley Health’s recent COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its employees lined Amherst Street at the entrance to Winchester Medical Center on Monday afternoon.
Some held signs that said “Stop medical mandates,” “My body my choice,” “Coercion is not medical consent” and “Freedom of medical choice.”
On July 19, Valley Health — parent company of Winchester Medical Center and five other hospitals in the region — announced it will require all of its workers, providers and contractors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 beginning Nov. 1. Employees who do not have an approved exemption and remain unvaccinated will face suspension or termination.
The protest, which was peaceful overall, according to the Winchester Police Department, was organized by the recently formed Valley Health Workers Association. The group was created in response to the vaccine mandate. A similar protest was held Sunday evening outside Valley Health’s Warren Memorial Hospital in Front Royal.
Brittany Watson, one of the organizers, has been a registered nurse at Winchester Medical Center for eight years. She said the mandate is taking away her choice to have a say about her body and her health.
“I think everybody should have a choice [as to] what they want to do,” Watson said. “We’ve had these loyal employees really fight [COVID-19], especially the ICU, the respiratory therapists, the nurses, the techs, and then they repay us by telling us what to do after 16 months with our bodies.”
Watson said she wishes there could be a compromise between those who want to remain unvaccinated and Valley Health’s goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19. She said she would be willing to get tested for the virus on a regular basis and continue to wear the needed personal protective equipment.
But she said she’s also willing to lose her job if she has no choice other than to be vaccinated. She said she personally opposes getting the vaccine because she believes she already has immunity from COVID-19 after contracting it in November. She also thinks efforts to promote the vaccine is “propaganda” by the U.S. government and that the long-term effects of the vaccine are unknown.
Many cars passing the protesters honked their horns in support, while some drivers felt compelled to speak out against them.
“I hope you are not my nurse when I come in,” one driver said.
“Get the shot,” another person shouted from a passing vehicle.
Valley Health has 6,300 employees and affiliated physicians across its network of six hospitals and medical office partners. About 73% of its employees are currently vaccinated, a spokesperson confirmed Monday. That’s an 8% increase within the past two weeks.
Not all of the protestors on Monday were Valley Health employees.
The Rev. Don Capps of Stephens City came out to show his support. While he said he isn’t “anti-vax,” he does not support the idea of people being forced to take medicine against their will. He held a sign that said, “Don’t jab me Joe!,” a reference to President Joe Biden.
Others protestors said they are concerned the Valley Health policy will lead to other local companies requiring their workers to get the vaccine.
Sabrina Kesterson, a registered nurse at Winchester Medical Center for the past 3½ years, said she resigned from her job over the mandate and will be working elsewhere. She held a sign that said, “Trust God not the vaccine.”
“I 100% have protected my patients,” said Kesterson, a West Virginia resident. She said she wore a mask when she was at work and bought her own pair of protective prescription glasses with side shields.
Natalie Miller, a registered nurse at Winchester Medical Center for four years, said she is hopeful she can keep her job by applying for a religious or medical exemption. She said she supports those who choose to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but she still believes she should have a choice regarding her own body.
As the protesters and a small group of counter protesters yelled back and forth across Amherst Street, Miller said it was hard to watch the division the vaccine has caused.
Elisabet Michaelsen, 75, of Winchester, was one of about five counter protesters. She held a sign that said, “COVID shots save lives.”
Another counter protester held a sign that said, “Science is the cure for bull****.”
Michaelsen said it was her civic duty to stand up against those who do not support getting the COVID-19 vaccine. She added that she was particularly disappointed in health care workers who do not support the science behind the vaccine.
“I thought that they had more insight and they had their scientific education to stand on,” she said. “Science has told us already that 99% of the people that are sick right now are people that are not vaccinated.”
Lynda Tyler, a former member of the Frederick County Board of Supervisors, didn’t know about the protest until she arrived at the hospital for an appointment. She joined the counter protesters in solidarity.
Tyler said her husband is currently a patient at the hospital and the thought of an unvaccinated worker caring for him is upsetting.
“They don’t want to take the vaccine, but they want to care for him,” Tyler said. “It’s tragic.”
Valley Health spokesperson Carol Weare said the health care system has worked hard to hear concerns and share information with staff who have been hesitant about getting the vaccine. This includes conversations held for months, with more than 50 virtual and in-person town halls with physician leaders, Weare said.
Valley Health System President and CEO Mark Nantz said in a statement that Valley Health officials continue to meet with team members to explain the vaccine requirement and discuss the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
“We respect the right of those who choose to peacefully express their feelings regarding our decision to require vaccination for the safety of our patients,” Nantz said. “We want to be the safest place in the country to receive health care and we take very seriously our obligation to provide an optimal healing environment for our patients.”
Nantz added that Valley Health’s vaccination requirement aligns with recommendations from the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, American Hospital Association and more than 50 other organizations.
Last Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted that more than 98% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths since January in the commonwealth have been among unvaccinated Virginians.
With the highly contagious delta variant causing a spike in COVID cases, the Centers for Disease Control is recommending that people wear face masks in public indoor spaces, no matter their vaccination status, if they are in an area with “substantial” or “high” coronavirus transmission rates.
As of Monday, Frederick and Clarke counties have a substantial COVID-19 transmission rate, while Winchester’s is moderate, according to the CDC.