DANSVILLE - Cindy Buckley doesn’t trust the COVID-19 vaccines currently on the market.

“My chiropractor says he’s had patients tell him every day that he’s there, he hears something new,” said Buckley, a unit clerk in the ICU at Noyes Memorial Hospital in Dansville. “Hearing issues, seeing issues, there’s so many things - a lot of heart things.”

Shanna Burley, a diet technician at the hospital, doesn’t feel comfortable getting vaccinated because she said there haven’t been studies on their potential long-term effects. She also thinks the risk of developing negative side effects from a vaccine - “The tremors, the disabilities, the Myocarditis,” - are greater than the risk of developing symptoms were she to contract the virus itself.

“For healthy adults? Yes, absolutely,” said Burley who, along with Buckley and Kaylee Erwin, a clinical dietician at Noyes, came together outside the hospital last Thursday to protest against an order from the state Health Department requiring health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID.”

According to the mandate, hospital staff must receive their first vaccine dose by Sept. 27. Those who don’t will be fired, according to the mandate.

A federal court on Tuesday – five days after the protest in Dansville – granted a temporary restraining order against Gov. Kathy Hochul’s vaccine mandate for the state’s health care workers. The restraining order will begin Sept. 27.

Burley, Buckley and Erwin framed their chief opposition to the mandate in terms of personal freedom and personal choice.

“If you want it? Great. If you don’t? Great,” said Burley. “...Choice is where we stand, If you want it, we’re not against it. That’s your choice.”

Added Buckley: “To say that someone has to put something in their body in order to keep a job, just seems so – it should be a personal choice and if someone down the street wants to get the vaccine, that’s great if that’s what they want to do. By all means do it, but don’t tell us we have to get the vaccine in order to keep a job.”

In Livingston County, 55 percent of residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Sept. 10, less than the statewide rate of 68.9 percent, according to figures from the state Health Department (click here to access the state’s COVID-19 tracking data.

Speaking last week, Noyes Health President and CEO Dr. J. Chad Teeters said concerns of the sort Burley and Buckley raised are largely without merit and called the COVID-19 vaccines “some of the most efficacious vaccines in history that we’ve ever seen.”

“When you look at safety, unfortunately the reports are quite often wrong. They are certainly overinflated and the likelihood of suffering some kind of significant, adverse consequence other than maybe a 24-hour low grade fever, feeling kind of run down, is less than the chance of getting stuck by lightning, quite honestly,” said Teeters, who served as chief of Highland Hospital’s cardiology unit for 11 years before being appointed to his current position at Noyes. “I think unfortunately, the politicization of the vaccine and the disinformation has been one of the biggest barriers that we’ve faced and truthfully, I think the safety and efficacy (of the COVID-19 vaccines) may be one of the best we’ve ever seen.”

Teeters noted that “almost every large medical body has endorsed and reiterated the safety and efficacy” of the COVID-19 vaccines and that the risk of suffering serious symptoms and being hospitalized with the virus is much lower for those who have been vaccinated when compared to those who have not been vaccinated.

“I think a lot of us in health care feel like to try to curb the spread of the virus and improve public health we need to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” said Teeters. “It likely is the only way that we’re going to reduce hospitalization, control mortality.”

As of Sept. 10, more than 650,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to CDC figures.

One study published in August in the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report looked at the rate of new COVID cases among New Yorkers from May 3 to July 25, 2021. The study (click here to read more) showed that during that time, a total of 9,675 new cases occurred among fully vaccinated adults, compared with 38,505 among unvaccinated adults.

During that same time, a total of 1,271 new COVID-19 hospitalizations occurred among fully vaccinated adults, compared with 7,308 among unvaccinated adults

As of July 25 – the end of the study period – nearly 66 percent of New Yorkers age 18 and older were fully vaccinated.

Another study published in the MMWR in September (click here to read more) looked at COVID-19 case, hospitalization and death rates in 13 U.S. jurisdictions from April 4 to July 17, 2021, and concluded “rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths were substantially higher in persons not fully vaccinated compared with those in fully vaccinated persons, similar to findings in other reports.”

‘Major concerns’

Buckley, Burley and Erwin were joined by perhaps as many as 60 other protesters last week. One of them was Debra Dieter, a nurse who works out of Noyes’s dialysis clinic in Geneseo. Like her fellow Noyes employees, Dieter is staunchly opposed to vaccines and the vaccine mandate.

“I have major concerns,” said Dieter. “I’ve seen horrific things from the vaccine.”

Dieter claimed she knows a fellow dialysis nurse who received the vaccine then suffered a heart attack, multiple strokes and is now a quadriplegic at the age of 31. She claimed to be treating a dialysis patient who was forced to get the vaccine by his employer, and now has no kidney function and is on dialysis.

“...I’ve just seen too many things that have happened with people who’ve had the vaccine," Dieter said. "I had a nurse who frickin’ lost her mind and was making horrible mistakes at work because she had the vaccine.”

Dieter claimed she and two other nurses who work at Noyes’s dialysis clinic in Geneseo will not get vaccinated. She questioned what would happen to the dialysis patients after Sept. 27, when all three will be forced to resign under the terms of the vaccine mandate.

“Who’s going to take care of 60-some patients,” she asked.

Dieter said she gets her vaccine information, in part, through a “brilliant” acquaintance who is a physician’s assistant and who “does a lot of research” on the vaccines, including by reading the writings of Dr. Joseph Mercola.

An osteopathic physician and anti-vaccine proponent, Mercola was identified in a March report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate as one of three people responsible for nearly 50 percent of anti-vaccine content shared to Facebook.

In February, the FDA cited Mercola for misleadingly representing products for sale on his website like vitamin C and D supplements as treatments for COVID-19. In its letter, the FDA advised Mercola to “take immediate action to cease the sale of such unapproved and unauthorized products for the mitigation, prevention, treatment, diagnosis, or cure of COVID-19.”

In the “About” section of his website, Mercola claims he’s “paved the way for revolutionary changes in the field of natural health” and that he’s “always ahead of the curve when it comes to innovative health information, breaking beyond the confines of conventional medicine to bring trustworthy health advice to his audiences.”

Elsewhere on his website, Mercola advises visitors that “the information on this website… is not intended as medical advice” and that they should confer “with a qualified health care professional” before making medical decisions.

Protesters on the march

After starting out on Red Jacket Street, across from Scovill’s Grill, protesters started walking west toward Route 36. Along the way, they brandished homemade posters, most of which conveyed opposition to the vaccine and the vaccine mandate, though some bore messages in support of law enforcement like “Back the blue” while at least one criticized critical race theory, likening it to “child abuse.”

Burley carried a sign bearing the message “If we lose medical freedom, we lose all freedom” while Erwin’s sign read “Last year’s heros, this year’s targets.”

As the protesters marched down Red Jacket Street, Sid Henry came out of his home to watch. An urgent care nurse at the VA Medical Center in Bath, Henry said he understands where the protesters are coming from.

“I feel it’s your body, if you don’t want to take it, you don’t want to have that vaccine, then you wear the mask and you do the social distancing,” said Henry, who was required to get the vaccine to keep his job. “...I am vaccinated, but I stand with them.”

After making their way down Red Jacket Street, the protesters turned left onto Route 36, then posted up near the main entrance to the hospital, across from the Interstate 390 entrance and exit ramps,

Once there, protesters chanted slogans like “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” “My body, my choice” and “Drop the mandate.”

Passing motorists beeped their horns frequently, eliciting roars of shouted approval from protesters.

The protesters were joined Thursday by Assemblymember Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, who voiced opposition to the vaccine mandate, questioned why health care workers who don’t want to be vaccinated aren’t being afforded the option of weekly testing as other types of workers are and expressed concern the mandate would make worse the existing health care worker shortage.

“In my brain, what’s going on is just wrong,” said Byrnes. “Educate, encourage, do our best through the media and any other source to say why this is good, make it available, obviously it’s free, but when it comes to ordering people to get it or losing their livelihood potentially for the rest of their life – in my mind, that’s gone too far.”

Byrnes said she talked with her doctor in March about whether to receive the vaccine, but declined to state whether she’d been vaccinated.

“I consulted him, I asked a whole lot of questions and at that point I made a decision but I think that the decision is between me and my doctor,” she said.

Asked whether she’d encourage people to get vaccinated, Byrnes said “I think for a lot of people it’s appropriate and they should.”

‘Voluntary resignations’ looming

Burley, the diet technician, said she’s been looking for another job in the event she’s fired for not getting the vaccine, though she’s holding out hope it doesn’t come to that.

“I’ll show up for work on Sept. 27 and we’ll go from there because I’m not abandoning my job at all,” she said. “...I don’t want to leave, I love my job. I went into this career for a reason and I’m being forced out of it.”

Teeters, Noyes’s president and CEO, said last week that 82 percent of the health care network’s 572 employees had received at least one dose of the vaccine and that he was hopeful that percentage would increase as the Sept. 27 deadline comes closer.

“Certainly the clinical staff tends to have a higher preponderance of vaccination than the hourly workers and the unlicensed staff,” he said. “We have had a steady stream of folks continuing to get vaccinated. A lot of it was folks waiting for the emergency use authorization to be removed. When that got approved for Pfizer, we did see an increase of folks who were moving toward getting vaccinated.”

Teeters said Noyes employees who don’t receive at least one vaccine dose by the Sept. 27 deadline will be treated as “voluntary resignations.”

“Which means we have work available, we certainly would encourage them to get vaccinated and come to work, their position would still be available,” he said. “Obviously, we will have to try to backfill that to maintain operations but we will be paying their paid time off that they’ve earned. From our standpoint, we will still be offering all the benefits as we would for any other voluntary resignation.”

At any one time, Teeters said the percentage of Noyes staffing positions that are vacant is usually somewhere around 7.8 percent, “Which is actually one of the lowest in the entire Western New York region.”

After the Sept. 27 deadline, Teeters said the “best case scenario” for Noyes from a staffing standpoint “would be pretty much as per our norm at about a 7 and a half percent vacancy rate.” A realistic worst case scenario would see Noyes’s vacancy rate somewhere between 10 and 15 percent, said Teeters, who acknowledged such a loss of staff could have an impact on services.

“I do think there is a reasonable potential we would see increased wait times in emergency departments, there may be some delays in scheduling of elective procedures and certainly hospital occupancy hinges on having nursing staff and other clinical staff available,” he said. “So there’s the potential for a reduction in bed space availability not just here but, really, across the region and we’re looking to minimize that as much as possible.”

As protesters shouted their opposition to the vaccine and the vaccine mandate outside Noyes Hospital Thursday, inside, staff were treating 10 COVID-19 patients, said Teeters. Eight of the patients were unvaccinated.

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