Mary Beth Sallee
Reporter, Hart Co. News-Herald
For the past year and a half, nurses and other healthcare workers faced one of the most trying times of their careers. They worked long hours, suffered the loss of patients, and endured the overall uncertainty of COVID-19.
But those same individuals who were once hailed as heroes during the pandemic are now faced with a dilemma: get vaccinated or resign.
On July 29, Med Center Health announced via its website that it will require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the website information, this will include “…medical staff, students, residents, fellows and vendors across the Med Center Health system.”
In a media statement made to The Hart County News-Herald, Med Center Health stated that on Thursday, August 5, its health system along with 10 other leading Kentucky health systems publicly pledged that they are “…committed to the health and safety of our patients and employees. In support of this commitment, we will all require our healthcare workforce to initiate and complete COVID-19 vaccination.”
In addition to Med Center Health, other health systems that are requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for their employees include UK Healthcare, U of L Health, Norton Healthcare, Baptist Health, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Appalachian Regional Healthcare, CHI St. Joseph Health, King’s Daughters, Pikeville Medical Center, and St. Claire Healthcare.
Those in leadership positions with Med Center Health will have through August 9 to receive their first dose, and all other employees will have through September 1.
Included as a branch of Med Center Health is The Medical Center at Caverna, located in Horse Cave.
Karen Wilson has been an RN since 2012, having worked for The Medical Center at Caverna since 2015 when the facility was still known as Caverna Hospital.
Emily Layton has been an RN for seven years, having worked that entire time for Caverna.
Both Wilson and Layton have chosen not to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Because of that choice, the nurses will no longer be employed with The Medical Center at Caverna after September 1.
Layton has chosen not to take the vaccine because she feels it was rushed.
“There is not enough research and data on this new vaccine to make me feel comfortable to receive it,” Layton said. “It is now being made mandatory to take at many places, which does not sit well with me. No vaccine has ever been mandatory for Americans. This should be concerning to everyone. America is supposed to stand for freedom. The government is trying to strip us of these rights.”
For Wilson, her biggest reason for not taking the vaccine lies within her religious beliefs.
“I truly believe this whole pandemic…is the Bible being fulfilled,” Wilson said. “…I’ve been to church ever since I was a baby, and it says that they’ll want you to follow the wrong path, that you’ll be asked to do things that are against your beliefs, that’s against your morals, that’s against who you are, and that’s against God.”
“…It plainly tells us in the Bible that you’ll be told you can’t have the necessities, but that’s where you’re faith’s gotta come in that God’s gonna provide for you, that you know God’s gonna take care of you,” Wilson continued. “Making hard decisions is part of that faith, and I truly believe that. No, I don’t think there’s a chip in the vaccine as far as the mark of the beast, but I do think this is the beginning of the whole hoo-rah that you’re gonna have to have this COVID card, this vaccination card, to go into a public place to buy things.”
Wilson said she also has concerns of how the vaccine could possibly affect her health.
“I had brain hemorrhages on both sides of my brain in April 2008,” Wilson said. “They (my doctors) never did figure out why. I didn’t lose complete use of my left side, but had to learn to regain strength. I wasn’t blind, but saw like 15 of everything for several months.”
Wilson suffered from epilepsy after the brain hemorrhages and was under doctor care for about nine years. However, she has not had any seizures since 2010 and is no longer on epilepsy nor under doctor care.
Although she is well aware that The Medical Center Caverna has allowed its employees the opportunity to submit a religious and/or medical exempt form, Wilson said that any exemption submission must still be approved by the medical facility’s Review Team.
“When I printed it off and read it (the medical exemption), I mean no,” Wilson said. “I’ve got to go to the doctors and I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that…The doctors that took care of me are no longer here, they no longer practice here. Yes, Greenview has the records because that’s the hospital I was in, but I’m not going and racking up doctor bills and going to these doctors to get these documentations whenever this should be my choice anyway. It’s my body.”
“On the religious exemption, you’ve got to take it to a clergyman, and they’ve got to fill it out and you’ve got to document scripture,” Wilson added. “But it’s pretty much saying that no matter what your beliefs are, if you don’t have enough documented proof, they can overturn that, too. I don’t need a clergyman or a preacher to write down and sign off on my beliefs. I’m 54-years-old. My beliefs are my beliefs. My religion is between me and my God. That’s not for nobody else to have to sign off with…”
In addition, Wilson also stated that she sees the vaccine as unstable.
“One vial has five doses in it,” Wilson said. “When you push your first needle into that vial to pull out the first dose, you have to pull out all five doses into syringes. You’ve got to keep them refrigerated, and you have to dispose of them if it is past six hours before they go into a body because they become unstable. Does that scare you?”
“Any medication that’s going to become unstable – not become expired, become unstable once you pop the seal – how are you gonna stand there and tell me it’s not going to be unstable when you put it in my arm?” Wilson continued. “…It’s not because it expired. It’s not like antibiotics where you’ve got so long to give it. We’re not talking that it’s not as potent or not as good. We’re talking about unstable. Tell me what you mean by unstable?”
Med Center Health has stated that it has administered over 88,500 COVID-19 vaccines and is only aware of minor immuno-response side effects, which are expected.
“The pandemic has taken a real emotional and physical toll on our healthcare workers, and this new surge is stretching our resources even further,” said Alan Alexander, Vice President and Administrator for The Medical Center at Caverna. “The vaccine is the best way to end this pandemic.”
Both Wilson and Layton said that during the past year and a half of working through the pandemic, they have never been diagnosed or confirmed positive with COVID-19. But what they have endured, both nurses explained, are ever-changing rules, many of which they continue to question.
“Working through this pandemic has been extremely difficult,” Layton said. “…We did not receive any additional pay or acknowledgments for our services during this time period. They wanted us to work additional hours without any recognition of our services…I took an oath prior to entering the nursing field to advocate and care for my patients to the best of my ability. This pandemic has made this difficult, not due to the virus but due to the management and government changes. Every day was something new. At first we were to wear masks. Then we where told to use N95s and throw them away after. The next day we where told to put our used N95s in a brown paper bag for seven days because this would assist them in ‘cleaning themselves’. This became our everyday life. Each day was something different that did not make any sense.”
“We worked on our COVID unit that was on the same floor as our acute patients,” Layton continued. “All that divided these patients were the use of red duct tape on the floor to show where the COVID unit stopped and started. This is how we had to work through this pandemic. I never complained about any of this, and now it is mandatory to take this vaccine or get fired. Seriously? Why can’t we just cover ourselves with red duct tape because apparently it keeps COVID away. We also worked in the emergency department where only one room was a negative pressure room, which is needed for the COVID virus. However, if we had more than one patient with COVID, they had to go into a regular room which was overlooked by management as, ‘It will be okay. Just keep the door closed.’”
According to Med Center Health, it has recently gone from two COVID patients to 53 COVID patients. This dramatic increase in admissions, the facility stated, is driven by the Delta variant and is happening across the region, state, and nation. As of August 16, The Medical Center at Caverna presently has no COVID patients.
Data from the Kentucky Department of Public Health as of August 13 states that 7,426 Kentuckians have lost their lives to COVID-19, and Hart County has lost 54 people to the virus.
“The vast majority of new cases are unvaccinated individuals,” stated Dr. William Moss, Medical Director of Med Center Health’s ER. “Not surprisingly, those are the sickest patients who find themselves on a ventilator in the ICU, clinging to life.”
However, Wilson stated that she sees fully vaccinated individuals enter The Medical Center at Caverna and test positive for COVID-19.
“The people that’s had the vaccine are getting sick now and testing positive,” Wilson said. “…They come in every day…And if you’ll call the nursing homes – and this is just by word of mouth – the COVID cases that they have in their facility right now, the ones who got it have been fully vaccinated, and they’ve had them to die that have been fully vaccinated.”
Wilson explained that she and her fellow employees have worked tirelessly during the pandemic in order to serve the community and provide the best care possible to its patients.
“We had employees getting sick. When the employees get sick, the employees that weren’t sick had to work the hours,” Wilson said. “All of us, we did what we had to do. We worked whatever hours we had to work. The ones of us that were lucky enough to not get sick covered all that we could cover…We really didn’t have anymore help than what we had previously before the pandemic, but we made it happen because that was what we were told we had to do. We all stayed. We all banned together…I’m not gonna say there weren’t any complaints…But nobody walked out.”
“We saw patients that where sick with COVID prior to the positive diagnosis,” Layton said. “I came home after caring for these patients all day to my family and risking their well being, and I did not complain one time.”
Now, in two weeks, these two nurses and others will be left without a job.
According to Wilson, if an employee of The Medical Center at Caverna chooses not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, he or she is forced into voluntary resignation or voluntary termination.
“If you tell people they’ll no longer have a job because they won’t take this vaccine, they’re firing you,” Wilson said. “That’s not voluntary termination.”
“I knew once this facility notified our screeners one day that after they clocked out for the day they no longer had a job with Med Center, that this facility does not care about their employees at all,” Layton said. “…When this mandatory vaccine came out through this facility, it did not surprise me at all. I knew they only care about themselves and the money they can receive as a company. It is not because they are worried about their employees or patients because our opinion does not matter. The only thing that matters is the money they will be receiving for each person who gets vaccinated due to this mandatory rule. This has bothered me because I love my small town hospital. I love knowing my patients and families and being there for them in their time of need. Once this corporation took over, they have shown us that our patients, their families, and us as employees do not matter to them.”
Wilson submitted her resignation letter on August 2.
“…In light of the changes that are taking place as a result of the recent decision to mandate all employees be vaccinated with a COVID-19 injection that has not been approved by the FDA and the CDC has not mandated and is still considered a clinical trial, I have no choice but to submit this resignation,” Wilson wrote in her letter. “The entire nursing process teaches us it is every patient’s right to decline any treatment that they deem unnecessary. However, The Medical Center has taken it upon themselves to prove to us as healthcare workers our rights mean nothing to them. If I decline the COVID-19 injection, I am no longer welcomed to be an employee. My body, my choice! In losing me, you are giving up a hard-working, dedicated employee with a tremendous work ethic who had every intention of retiring from this company…”
Layton has not submitted a resignation and does not plan to do so, even though she also has no plan of taking the vaccine.
“I feel like if I submit this, I will be saying that I am selecting to leave when I am not. I am being forced out of my hometown hospital due to corporation rules,” Layton explained. “I do not want my patients to think I have chosen to give up on them because I have not. In order for me to leave this facility, I will have to be forced out, and that’s what they will have to do is what they call ‘voluntary termination’. Either way, I will not receive the vaccine. I feel that at this point it is not something I want to do due to personal reasons, and if this facility can not understand this then I know my voice does not matter, which shows me this is not a facility I want to be a part of.”
According to the Med Center Health, in addition to the growing number of hospitals and health systems requiring the vaccination for employees, there are now more than 60 other health and medical groups – including the American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, American College of Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and American Public Health Association – who are calling on healthcare organizations to require employees be vaccinated. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society of Maternal and Fetal Medicine also recommend that all eligible persons, including pregnant and lactating individuals, receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“While we acknowledge this issue evokes very strong feelings in people, we believe the position advocated by the hospital systems and health associations listed above is the correct position to promote healthier communities and save lives,” said the Med Center Health media statement. “Med Center Health hopes all those who live and work in our communities and are eligible will choose to be vaccinated.”
The Med Center Health has further stated that its decision to require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine is based on the vaccine’s proven effectiveness and Med Center Health’s commitment to do everything in their power to protect the health and well-being of its patients and employees.
“I am hopeful other hospitals in our region along with employers outside of healthcare will also consider policies to drive increased vaccinations. Lives literally depend on it,” said Connie Smith, President and CEO of Med Center Health. “This is the right thing to do for our staff, our patients, and our community.”
Neither Wilson nor Layton are anti-vaccine but simply want to make their own medical decisions for their own bodies.
“I am by no means putting down anyone who has decided to get the vaccine, but people are putting me down for not receiving it and now firing me as a dedicated employee due to a personal choice,” Layton said. “At what point do you think the government will stop? There is a state that now requires this vaccine to get into establishments. This should be very concerning to every American. Freedom is not in America anymore, and I refuse to live without my personal freedom and not fight back.”
“COVID-19 is real and should be taken seriously. However, so is our right to have freedom for personal choice,” Layton continued. “If you decide to take the vaccine, I support your decision because that is your personal choice. Shouldn’t mine be respected as well to not receive the vaccine? I am not an anti-vax person at all. I am up to date on all my vaccinations. However, I am not 100% comfortable with this new vaccine, so I chose to follow my gut and not receive this vaccine yet.”
“The vaccine is your choice,” Wilson said. “I’m not gonna stand here and condemn you for taking the vaccine if that’s what you feel like you need to do, if that’s what gives you your peace of mind…Everybody was under the assumption that when this vaccine came out, if you got vaccinated, you weren’t going to have to wear a mask no more and you could go wherever you wanted to go and you could do anything you wanted to do. That’s not the case.”
“Right now, it’s really not even a vaccination,” Wilson continued. “They call it a vaccination, but it’s not a vaccination. It’s a clinical trial, and if you go and do your research about clinical trials, you can’t force anybody to take part in a clinical trial.”
Overall, Layton said that just as she and her fellow healthcare workers have advocated for patient rights, it is now time that their rights are acknowledged as well.
“I have been a loyal employee who has cared for patients of all populations and health concerns,” Layton said. “When a patient is sick and refuses treatment, we respect their wishes. Why can’t The Med Center respect mine? I hate that it has came to this, but I have advocated for my patients throughout my entire career, and now it is time I advocate for myself.”