People protesting Oregon's Covid vaccination mandates march toward Salem Hospital on Sept. 2, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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Amanda Bartow said she was always hesitant about getting a Covid vaccine.

The Salem Health nurse said she’s gotten all her regular vaccines, including an annual flu shot, but wasn’t convinced getting a shot for Covid made sense for her. She knows they’re important for people at high risk for Covid, like older people or those with serious health problems.

“It’s not definitely a ‘no’ for me. I wanted more time, time to learn about it, more time to see the longer side effects,” she said.

Bartow was among about 100 people protesting Oregon’s vaccination mandates for health care workers outside Salem Hospital on Wednesday. A handful wore blue or grey scrubs, and many carried signs reading “My body, my choice,” “Yesterday’s heroes, today’s expendables” and “Forced vaccination: where does it stop?”

The group included some health care workers, as well as children and others who have vocally opposed vaccine mandates and Covid restrictions, including Pastor Lew Wooten of The River Church in Salem.

Wooten said he would do what he could to assist those seeking religious exceptions to vaccination mandates.

The vaccination mandate, announced by Gov. Kate Brown on Aug. 19, requires people working in health care facilities to be fully vaccinated against Covid by Oct. 18, or seek a medical or religious exception.

It’s supported by hospital leadership, including Salem Health CEO Cheryl Nester Wolfe and chief medical hi Ralph Yates, who said in an interview Wednesday the mandate is about ending the pandemic and protecting patients.

“If I was a patient in our institution, I would want to know whether the individual taking care of me was vaccinated. Wouldn’t you? It’s incredibly important if we’re providing care for our patients that we provide every level of protection that’s available for us,” Yates said.

Salem Reporter spoke with five Salem Health nurses who oppose the vaccine mandate, including one who said she’s vaccinated against Covid but felt other health care providers should be able to decide what’s best for them.

Amanda Bartow, left, a nurse at Salem Health, protests Oregon's Covid vaccination mandate for health care workers outside the hospital on Sept. 2, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Most said they hadn’t ruled out getting the vaccine, but had concerns about the possibility of health problems or long-term side effects, despite the overwhelming consensus from scientists, public health workers and professional organizations like the Oregon Nurses Association that the vaccines are safe.

They felt development of the vaccines was rushed compared to well-established shots like measles, mumps and rubella, and didn’t believe it was ethical to require vaccination as a condition of employment.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted approval to the Pfizer Covid vaccine on Aug. 23 for people 16 and older, saying it's safe and effective at preventing both Covid infection as well as severe disease and hospitalization.

The nurses also said they’re fearful of the animus against people who have chosen not to get vaccinated, including among fellow health care providers who complain about unvaccinated patients filling hospital beds.

Nurse Kristi Winn said she’s been disturbed by the way other health care workers talk about unvaccinated patients as if they deserve to get sick.

“To see the judgment that is being placed on these individuals that have made these decisions … I don’t agree that people should smoke. I don’t agree with a lot of things people do to their bodies,” she said.

But Winn said she’s always treated patients who come in and out of the hospital with severe cases of lung disease caused by years of smoking and doesn’t view Covid any differently.

“Did they quit smoking? They didn’t. Did we still care for them at the time? We did,” she said.

She said she would have preferred more time to consider her decision, but got her Covid vaccine three months ago. She said she's seen in her work that it's effective at preventing hospitalizations and death.

“I knew that I was not going to have a career otherwise and my husband and I travel all over the place,” she said. “When it comes to mandating medication, that’s where I guess I draw the line.”

Lisa Koontz, who’s approaching her 25th anniversary as a Salem Health nurse, said she was fine with the hospital’s earlier policy of testing unvaccinated health care workers regularly for Covid, though she felt the testing should have been done to everyone. She said she can be unvaccinated against Covid and still provide good care for patients.

“I was unvaccinated all the way through the pandemic and I wore my PPE and I’ll still wear my PPE. To my knowledge there’s not been a single case where nurse has passed it on to patient at Salem Health,” she said,

Koontz is a labor and delivery nurse and said if a patient didn’t want to receive care from her because she’s unvaccinated, she respects their decision, but she doesn’t think the hospital should be able to fire her.

“If they truly have an issue with it, I will find someone else who will trade assignments because there are plenty of us (who are vaccinated),” she said. If she’s not able to get an exception to the mandate, “I’ll lose my job right now and it’s not just the vaccine. I also don’t feel like the government has a right to demand what I put in my body when it hasn’t been tested fully.”

Chelsea Wenger, center left, a Salem Health nurse, protests Oregon's Covid vaccination mandate for health care workers outside the hospital on Sept. 2, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Chelsea Wenger, an assistant nurse manager, said she wants hospital leadership to stand up to the governor, and questioned the safety of vaccines, saying she personally knows people who have developed heart conditions after being vaccinated.

She said the single-minded focus on vaccines as the only way to fight Covid is irresponsible.

“It’s almost as good as genocide,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in June it has received over 1,000 reports of heart inflammation following vaccination since April, out of hundreds of millions of Americans who have received Covid vaccines. The public health agency said those symptoms typically improve with treatment, and men under age 40 were at highest risk. The FDA included a warning in the approved Pfizer vaccine about the risk.

Wenger also said it’s hypocritical of hospital leadership to claim they support nurses and health care providers and speak about how they’re burnt out from pandemic care while being willing to fire nurses who won’t get vaccinated.

"Why would you remove a nurse that can work the floor in the middle of a critical nurse staffing crisis?" she said.

Unvaccinated health care workers are a minority both in Oregon and at Salem Health.

As of Aug. 15, 72% of licensed health care workers in Oregon had been vaccinated against Covid, according to Oregon Health Authority, including 95% of dentists, 88% of medical doctors and 75% of registered nurses.

Yates said 77% of all Salem Health employees have been vaccinated against Covid, a figure that includes non-medical workers like hospital cleaners who are also covered under the mandate.

Health care providers who aren’t employed directly by Salem Health but work in the hospital under contracts are 95% vaccinated, he said.

Wolfe said Thursday in a meeting of Salem Chamber of Commerce members that Salem Health has hired 150 nurses in the past month and is continuing hiring with the expectation some employees will leave because of the mandate. She said the hospital will have a better sense of the true number after Sept. 9 - the day by which people must receive their first vaccine in a two-dose series in order to be fully vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline.

“I honestly do not believe 1,200 people are going to leave,” she said, referring to the rough number of unvaccinated Salem Health employees.

Yates said the hospital hasn’t formally surveyed unvaccinated employees about their reasons for not getting the shot and doesn’t have a sense of how many will quit over the mandate.

Employees seeking a medical or religious exception must submit the request by Sept. 20, he said. The process for approving them is still being determined, Yates said. He couldn’t detail what would happen for employees whose exception is denied without enough time for them to then get fully vaccinated before the deadline.

Yates said he’s spent much of his 42-year career as a doctor working with vaccines and oversaw the hospital’s vaccination clinic at the state fairgrounds, Oregon’s first mass vaccination site to open.

“These are the best (vaccines) I’ve seen that have come along, and we’ve given 275,000 doses at Salem Health … and have had only a handful of reactions, none of them serious,” he said.

Yates said he’s aware of two people who required emergency room treatment in Salem for an allergic reaction caused by the vaccines, and nobody who required hospital admission from side effects.

He said he’s holding a town hall with employees Friday to answer questions and address concerns some people have about the vaccine. He said he’s sad after weeks of seeing mostly unvaccinated Covid patients die in the hospital’s ICU from a disease that vaccination could have prevented or made far less serious.

“You want to know what my fundamental emotion is? Sadness,” he said. “We thought that this was over in June. We held a ceremony at the fairgrounds in June. We congratulated one another on the incredible work that was done for our community. And then this hit and we are now where we are - it is complete sadness that I feel when we look at all this.”

Correction: This article originally listed nurse Chelsea Wenger's department incorrectly. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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