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Why were people protesting outside AMC on Wednesday?

Pat, left, and Karla, both of whom did not give their last names, hold signs at an anti-vaccine rally outside Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake on Wednesday. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — As the deadline for health care workers in New York to get their first dose of the vaccine approaches, an anti-vaccine rally was held across the street from Adirondack Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon.

Between two and three dozen people showed up to oppose the state’s requirement that health care workers get vaccinated against the coronavirus, which starts on Sept. 27. They’ll be fired if they don’t get it and may not qualify for unemployment, according to the state executive order.

This regulation will last for 90 days, at which point it may be extended or revised.

The state is making exemptions for medical reasons, which are rare and very specific, and is not allowing for religious exemptions.

On Wednesday, several employees, and families of employees at Adirondack Health, were at the rally. Many of the employees said they’re frightened of losing their jobs, but they’re more frightened of the vaccine.

Jeff Moulton, a spokesperson for Adirondack Health, which runs AMC, said 97% of Adirondack Health employees were vaccinated before the state mandate on Aug. 16.

Moulton said health care workers should be vaccinated to keep their patients safe. Many patients are already ill, have comorbidities or are elderly.

“The vaccine has been proven effective and safe,” Moulton said. “A lot of our staff has been vaccinated for eight-plus months now with no adverse health reactions.”

He added that when people are vaccinated, they catch COVID-19 at a much lower rate — 0.5% — and are hospitalized at an even lower rate — .04%.

Moulton said he’s unsure what he can say to convince Adirondack Health employees to get the vaccine, keep their jobs, and protect themselves and the people they care for, other than that the vaccine is effective at keeping people from getting seriously ill.

“As cases increase in our area, it’s important that people can feel safe coming to our facilities,” Moulton said.

The rally on Wednesday was organized by Colleen Farmer, a nurse at AMC, with Tom and Diane Burman of Bloomingdale.

Rally attendees were concerned that if hospital staff organize or participate in anti-vaccine mandate rallies, they’ll be fired.

Moulton said the hospital can’t fire people for participating or organizing these rallies because of anti-retaliation laws.

“You have a right to protest,” he said.

“We’re going to lose our jobs”

At the protest on Wednesday, some attendees said they felt the hospital workers, who were hailed as valuable heroes last year, are now being treated as expendable if they don’t get the vaccine.

“Nobody should have to be forced to do anything with their body that they don’t want to,” said Christina Smith, a nurse who attended the rally.

“We’re going to lose our jobs,” said Vashti McCormick, who works at Mercy Living Center, an Adirondack Health- operated nursing home in Tupper Lake. “It’s getting pretty real for those of us who have reasons to not to be vaccinated. It is really scary for us. We are having a really hard time with it. A lot of anxiety.”

She said she’s not getting the vaccine because she’s trying to get pregnant.

“There’s not enough studies for me to know the long-term effects on fetuses,” McCormick said. “I think it’s really dangerous.”

She said she’ll have to find a new job, likely, in a new field.

“I’m probably not going to able to be nurse anymore, which is sad. That was my dream,” McCormick said. “I’m still paying off my student loans.”

She said she’s not scared of virus, herself, because she’s young and has no known comorbidities. She knows it’s dangerous for others though, and said she did not want to “minimize” the virus.

A study of 105,000 pregnant people conducted by the HealthPartners Institute in Minnesota, published on Tuesday, found that COVID-19 vaccines did not cause increased miscarriages.

“It’s especially important for pregnant people to protect themselves against the virus because COVID-19 infections may impact them more severely and lead to birth complications,” HealthPartners Institute Senior Investigator and lead author of the study, Elyse Kharbanda, told CBS Channel 4 WCCO in Minneapolis.

A man who did not give his name for fear of retribution at his job said his wife will be fired from Adirondack Health later this month because she will not get the vaccine. They have a young son, they’ll lose the health care insurance she gets through her work and he’s going to have to support the family until she can find another job, as it is uncertain if she’ll be able to claim unemployment through the state.

“These people here worked through this pandemic for almost two years with no vaccinations,” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, as the pandemic begins to wind down and there’s 50% of our people vaccinated (they are requiring it) … what is the urgency at this point?”

He said his wife went to college to get a good job and now she’s losing it because she isn’t not confident the vaccine works.

“This is about to tear my household wide open,” he said.

He is not convinced the vaccine protects against the virus. He said he’ll get the vaccine once he knows it works and said he’ll know the vaccine works once things go back to normal and people don’t have to wear masks anymore.

Kathy Bliss said her daughter has been a per diem nurse for 12 years and that Sept. 27 might be her last day of work because she’s afraid of the vaccine.

“We as human beings should have the right to put in our body what we want,” Bliss said. “It is a God-given right.”

Bliss was asked if she believes the vaccine keeps people safe.

“I don’t know what the vaccine does,” she said.

She said people can still get and spread the coronavirus if they’re vaccinated. This is true, but the symptoms are less severe for vaccinated people when “breakthrough” infections do happen.

“I don’t know. That’s not really been proven,” Bliss said, when asked about this.

Uncertain unemployment

Health care workers fired for not complying with the state mandate may not be able to collect unemployment as a result of their termination.

Deanna Cohen, deputy director of communications for the state Department of Labor, said each unemployment case is different and reviewed individually.

Public employees who refuse to follow a government mandate for vaccination are more likely to be disqualified from collecting unemployment if they are fired than workers who refuse to follow a private company’s vaccination mandate, Cohen said, but she said the department couldn’t give a blanket statement on what will happen when a private employee refuses a government mandate.

Cohen also said that whether an employee interacts with the public in their job will be taken into account.

Staffing

Hospitals around the state are preparing for some employees to not get the vaccine and not be allowed to work there anymore, and many are concerned this will worsen staffing shortages.

Moulton said understaffing is not a concern for Adirondack Health. He said other employees are covering shifts, and with 3% of employees being unvaccinated and two weeks to go, the health network is not looking at a large loss.

“We will abide by the state Department of Health’s requirement for all of our workers to be vaccinated and we will continue to keep them updated with as much helpful information as possible as we approach the Sept. 27 deadline,” Adirondack Health President and CEO Aaron Kramer wrote in a statement. “Our goal is to support our employees as best we can. They are the backbone of our organization.”

Other statistics

According to data from the state Department of Health, in Franklin and Essex counties, 12% and 10% of hospital employees are unvaccinated, respectively.

In Franklin and Essex counties, 3% and 4% of nursing home employees are unvaccinated, respectively.

In the North Country region, 17% of hospital employees are unvaccinated and 4% of nursing home employees are unvaccinated

Statewide, 20% of hospital workers and 24% of nursing home workers are unvaccinated.

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