Featured photo: Protesters gathered outside of Novant Health on Aug. 9 to protest the hospital system’s recent vaccine mandate for their staff. (photo by James Douglas)

Linda Williams is not a nurse, or even a healthcare worker. But she stands with nurses against vaccine mandates at North Carolina hospital systems. At Monday’s protest on Silas Creek Parkway in Winston-Salem, she held up a green sign that said, “Stop the mandate” while standing with her friends, none of whom are nurses, who chanted, “Freedom, not force.”

“There’s just too many unknowns concerning not only COVID, but also the vaccine,” said Williams, who says she does not know anyone who works in the Novant hospital system where she was protesting. “They tell me they’ve been working on it for years and years just waiting on the virus, but I don’t know. It makes me nervous.”

Williams is not alone. Vaccination rates have stalled across the United States as people refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. Across North Carolina, similar protests have taken place in Greensboro, Charlotte, Durham and Goldsboro as hospital systems including Atrium Health, Cone Health, Duke Health, Novant Health and Wake Forest Baptist mandated vaccines for their employees in late July.

According to a recent Census study, at least 18 percent of the adult population in the United States say they will probably or definitely not get the vaccine when offered. This is due to everything from mistrust of the government to mistrust of all vaccines in general. In North Carolina specifically, more than 20 percent of adults say they will not get vaccinated.

Nurses and other healthcare workers across the country have been protesting mandatory vaccines at their workplaces, from California to Colorado as well. This is in spite of the Delta variant of the virus which is causing case numbers to rise across the county. In June, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported on a case of a cancer patient who likely contracted COVID from someone on his healthcare team.

COVID variants have contributed to a 200 percent increase in hospitalizations within the Wake Forest Baptist Health network according to a statement from the hospital system. Of those new cases, they said, 99 percent are unvaccinated. The Cone Health hospital system in Greensboro reported that the vaccine is 85 percent effective in preventing hospitalizations and death from the Delta variant.

Despite the rising numbers due to the highly infectious and deadly Delta variant, USA Fact’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker reported that 60 percent of the population has received at least one dose, which means about 40 percent have not taken any vaccines at all. They estimate that, right now, just over half of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID and just under half is not.

In Guilford County, 55 percent of the population has gotten at least one dose of the vaccine and just over 51 percent are fully vaccinated. In Forsyth, just over 53 percent are partially and nearly 50 percent are fully vaccinated.

Even if the vaccines, which are currently authorized under emergency use authorization, get regular FDA approval, Williams says she would not get the vaccine.

“I wouldn’t feel any better about it,” she said. “I’d feel forced.”

Unvaccinated healthcare workers are a cause for concern for both patients and their fellow healthcare workers who have been vaccinated. Dr. Pam Oliver, the president of Novant Health’s physician network, says a mandate is one of the best ways to prevent further cases.

“We’ve committed to flu vaccinations across our systems for years, and that’s because our patients deserve to be safe,” said Oliver. “We don’t want to do more harm than good if we can avoid it.”

She understands that some oppose any sort of infringement on their ability to choose whether or not to get the vaccine, but “we come into contact with people in their most vulnerable state,” she said. “We hear that from our teams, but we feel our commitment to our patients trumps that at this point.”

One protester said that without freedoms, America is “Hitler country.” The protester, Michelle Daniels, attended the protest on Monday despite not working in healthcare herself. (photo by James Douglas)

For some who are opposed to the vaccine like Michelle Daniels, who is also not a healthcare worker, the issue is just that. With no freedoms, she says America is a “Hitler country.”

“Freedom of speech, freedom of whatever you want to do,” she said. “If you want to slap a mask on, that’s fine, but I’m not going to.

“You’re not doing right by all these people,” she continued. “And what about all the people who have died from this or have had allergic reactions from the vaccine?”

While the CDC has reported 11.1 cases of allergic reaction including anaphylactic shock per one million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 2.5 cases for every one million doses of the Moderna vaccine, it is an established fact that serious illness and death from COVID-19 is must more likely. The WHO has reported 612,060 deaths and 35,657,845 cases of COVID as of Aug. 9. That amounts to about 17,164 deaths per one million cases.

Many of those opposed to vaccines are also opposed to masks, like Daniels, but not all.

“If it makes people feel safe, that’s something I’d be willing to do that for other people,” said Briana, a local organizer who did not give her last name. “I personally disagree with mandates and I think masks do more harm than good. But a middle ground is a happy place.”

Research out of the University of California San Francisco found that masks work very well against COVID-19 as what they call a “source control.” This means they prevent larger droplets from evaporating into smaller ones that can travel further. But they only work if everyone uses them.

Briana says she is a nurse at a local hospital, though she did not specify which one. She says the responses to her protests have been positive overall. At the action outside of the Novant Health system, she said she did not know anyone there personally. Her Facebook page, Stop Healthcare Mandates, was recently shut down by Facebook “for violating community guidelines.”

Despite the protests, hospitals continue to mandate vaccines for employees for patient health.

“Throughout the pandemic, our teammates have courageously cared for our patients, their loved ones and each other,” said Wake Forest Baptist Health CEO Julie Freischlag. “The COVID-19 vaccines are proven to be safe and effective and mandating them for our health care workers will ensure we are doing all we can to keep our patients, our teammates and our communities safe.”

James Douglas contributed reporting for this article.

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