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Several dozen people protested COVID-19 vaccine mandates near the corner of Logan Regional Hospital’s campus on Saturday.

The rally "came about just because I believe everybody has a choice to do what they want with themselves,” said Missy Best, an ER nurse who helped organize it. “So I feel like it’s not necessarily about the vaccine but the choice to get it or not.”

That refrain — it’s not about the vaccine, it’s about the mandate — was common among people interviewed at the protest, demonstrators’ signs, and the fliers and posts circulating on social media in the leadup to the event protesting Intermountain Healthcare’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees, which is set to take effect early next year.

Best said she’s glad Intermountain’s mandate includes religious and medical exemptions. But if she wasn’t granted an exemption and the mandates couldn’t be stopped by lawmakers or courts?

“I would not get vaccinated,” Best said. “I would leave. I’ve been here 10 years, but I wouldn’t get vaccinated. There’s a lot of us nurses that are the same way about it.”

Intermountain Healthcare, which owns and operates Logan Regional Hospital, announced near the end of October that they would require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, dismissing employees who haven’t received their first shot by Jan. 5. The announcement came after Intermountain received federal guidance on pending vaccine mandates for workers at facilities that receive federal funds and for employers with more than 100 workers, according to a spokesperson for the provider.

The mandate from President Biden’s administration has come up against hurdles both federally and in Utah.

On Nov. 6, an appeals court granted a stay on the mandate, as requested by a number of employers, religious groups and states. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is among those challenging the mandate, calling it “an egregious and unprecedented exercise of coercive power by the federal executive branch.”

“As I’ve stated before, President Biden can pretend to be an emperor, but America is a free republic, not a dictatorial state,” Reyes stated earlier this month.

The Utah Legislature has pushed back on the mandate, as well, sending a bill to Gov. Spencer Cox that would require any employer with a mandate to offer exemptions for religious, medical or personal reasons, among other protections. The bill was amended to exempt companies, including Intermountain, who receive Medicaid and Medicare payments or who have federal contracts that could be jeopardized if they don’t comply with federal mandates. The law will take effect if and when it’s signed by Gov. Cox, who has stated he doesn’t plan on vetoing any bill from the recent special session.

While the new Utah law requiring companies to offer exemptions to employees on “personal” grounds won't apply to Intermountain, the company is already offering religious and medical exemptions to the mandate. Spokesman Mark Briesacher stated at a press conference that Intermountain would evaluate those requests “very thoughtfully, very carefully, in a generous way.”

Shortly after Intermountain announced its mandate, it estimated that 80% of its workforce had been vaccinated against COVID-19 already.

Because of the Biden administration’s mandate, Best said she didn’t even view Saturday’s protest as particularly against Intermountain Healthcare.

“It has nothing to do with Intermountain’s mandate, because it’s coming from the federal government technically,” Best said. The demonstration was “mainly for everyone to have the freedom to choose what’s best for themselves rather than being forced to do it.”

Best said she loves working in health care. In the emergency room, nurses take action and make decisions that can “make somebody’s bad day turn better.” Still, working in the ER since the novel coronavirus began increasing hospitalizations has been difficult, she said.

She personally doesn’t believe COVID-19 vaccines have been studied long enough to say they’re safe enough to start mandating them. Given the higher rates of burnout nurses have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic, Best said firing more of them because they choose not to be vaccinated against COVID would harm the hospital’s capabilities.

“If we’re not there, then we’re not going to have those nurses to be able to take care of those people,” Best said.

The demonstration in Logan garnered mostly shows of support from passing motorists — with a few disapproving or rude gestures here and there. Two people sat on a corner across from the protest, one holding a sign saying “vaccines save lives.” One protester crossed the street to offer the pro-vaccine sign holder to come stand with the anti-mandate protest, saying many of the protesters would agree that vaccines save lives, they’re just against being forced to choose between keeping their jobs or refusing the vaccine. The pro-vaccine protester declined, but later said he viewed the interaction as positive.

Posts about the protest drew a bit more debate in local social media groups.

“If they don’t believe in science they shouldn’t work in healthcare,” Alissa Floyd Weller posted.

User Lauren Tee responded, “This has nothing to do with science. It has to do with freedom of choice,” to which Weller responded that other vaccines have already been required for health care workers.

Annette Hilton, a user who said she’s a nurse who’d worked for Intermountain for six years, agreed with Weller that mandates for other vaccines aren’t new.

“Healthcare workers have lived with these mandates for a long time,” Hilton wrote. “I got my vaccinations then and do now. It’s an embarrassment to my profession that the nurses who are protesting this are uneducated about science and vaccinations.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state millions of Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 “under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.” Two rare health problems have been observed after patients are vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the CDC states, including anaphylaxis and TTS, or thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome. TTS was observed in about 7 out of 1 million vaccinated women between 18 and 49.

Other possible side effects observed among adolescents and young adults, myocarditis and pericarditis, are also rare, the CDC states, concluding “the known and potential benefits of COVID-19 vaccination outweigh the known and potential risks.”

The Utah Department of Health reported Monday that over the past 28 days, Utahns who weren’t vaccinated were 19 times more likely to die from COVID-19, at 11.7 times greater risk for being hospitalized with the virus, and 4.8 times greater risk of testing positive for the disease.

Several of Saturday’s demonstrators said they weren’t against vaccines in general, but they were hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines in particular. Some cited a distrust of news media, big pharma and institutions like the CDC. Others said they believe COVID-19 vaccines haven’t been studied for long enough. Although the first clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate in the U.S. began 20 months ago in March 2020, multiple demonstrators said they’d be more comfortable once the vaccines had been observed for 10 years or more.

To those wondering whether COVID-19 vaccines may have hidden, delayed effects years down the road, the CDC has stated “vaccine monitoring has historically shown that side effects generally happen within six weeks of receiving a vaccine dose.”

A group of Australian doctors wrote for science communication outlet The Conversation back in February that observation of the hundreds of millions of people who’d already been vaccinated, combined with several months of large clinical trials, combined with historic vaccine monitoring gave them “confidence that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.”

“If side-effects are going to occur, they usually happen within a few months after getting a vaccine,” the researchers wrote.

In Cache County, the rate of new COVID-19 cases detected daily has been declining very slowly. The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases has been falling since it hit a peak of 76 on Sept. 20, to about 64 as of Monday. About 100 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county over the past 30 days, and 10 people have died.

About 64% of Cache County residents over the age of 12 have been immunized against COVID-19, meaning that at least 14 days had passed as of Monday since completing their vaccine series.

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