MORGANTOWN—Dozens of protestors lined Patteson Drive Saturday in response to the growing number of health care systems announcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees.
Vaccination mandates throughout the health care field are becoming more common as WVU Medicine, Mon Health Systems, Charleston Area Medical Center and many other hospitals across the state and nation announce such mandates. Many of the protesters who gathered were WVU Medicine employees, including several registered nurses. WVU Medicine announced Aug. 23 it would require all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 31.
A WVU Medicine spokesperson said the mandate is important to keep hospital staff healthy and able to care for all patients.
Desirae Brumley, a registered nurse, was among those employed by WVU Medicine participating in Saturday’s rally. She held a sign reading, “I’m a nurse, not a lab rat.”
“It’s a lot of emotion for me as much as I went through getting to be an RN, working throughout the COVID pandemic and just feeling like we were so important,” Brumley said. “And now I just feel like we don’t have a right, like our rights and our choices are being taken away from us.”
Bri Leichliter, also a registered nurse with WVU Medicine, shared similar thoughts.
“Patients have the right to make a choice. Educated professionals should be able to have a choice,” she said. “It is our bodies.”
Others drove from around West Virginia and out of state to participate in the rally. Addison Wrick, an optometric technician from Bobtown, Pa., said she joined the protest because her employer was among those mandating vaccines.
“I believe everybody has a choice if they want a vaccine or not,” Wrick said.
Chelsea Ebbert, a registered nurse in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at WVU Medicine, is among the registered nurses who chose to get vaccinated. She said she believes the vaccination should be mandated, as it is not the first type of vaccine she has been required to get in her line of work.
Ebbert got vaccinated as soon as she could — back in December of 2020 — after witnessing firsthand the impacts contracting COVID-19 can have. Ebbert has cared for patients who require Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, a therapy that oxygenates a patient’s blood outside of their body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.
She said WVU Medicine has six of these machines, but due to the rise in cases, all machines are currently in use with the vast majority of admitted COVID-19 patients being unvaccinated. This has required some sick individuals to be turned away by hospitals due to lack of bed space.
“I know it’s very easy for me to say everyone needs to get [the vaccine] because I’m seeing the worst of the worst patients and for some people it’s out of sight, out of mind,” Ebbert said. “They don’t know how terrible [COVID-19] is, but it’s not going away anytime soon. The only way that we can get over this is if people get vaccinated.”
Several mandates, including that from WVU Medicine, came around the time the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. According to a press release from WVU Medicine, the health system had administered the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to more than 60% of its workforce prior to the full approval.
Albert L. Wright Jr., president and CEO of WVU Health System, said in the release, the increased number of unvaccinated staff out due to COVID-19 is beginning to have an impact on patient care. By having a two-tiered workforce, one vaccinated and one unvaccinated, he said places an unfair burden on vaccinated staff, patients and the public.
“We respect people’s rights to express their feelings and opinions on this topic, but a public health crisis demands a public health response,” said WVU Medicine Spokesperson Heather Bonecutter. “Our providers are on the frontlines caring for the people in this community; we cannot have them sidelined due to COVID, as doing so jeopardizes patient care. The FDA-approved vaccine, which hundreds of millions of Americans have received, is safe and effective.”