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Medical, other professionals air grievances over workplace vaccine mandates in listening session

Published: Sep. 18, 2021 at 5:24 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A large group of residents — a mix of medical professionals, teachers and others — gathered in the Anchorage Assembly Chambers on Saturday for a listening session organized by an assembly member to share their stories, saying they’re being discriminated against by employers who have instituted vaccine requirements.

The session was organized by assembly member Jamie Allard of Eagle River. It was not widely advertised, but dozens of nurses, teachers and others came to speak about their opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the mistreatment they feel on the part of employers that are requiring them, and fears over the future of their jobs.

According to Corey Allen Young, communications director for Mayor Dave Bronson’s office, Bronson was invited to the listening session and attended. So did assembly member John Weddleton. Two assembly members does not constitute a quorum or majority of the assembly. When a majority of a government body meets, that meeting is required to be publicly noticed according to state law on public meetings.

Young said via email that Bronson had been invited to hear testimony from nurses and medical professionals, teachers and other professionals who say they’re being discriminated against by employers with workplace vaccine policies.

“Those in the medical field say the shortage of staff is because there are many who won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine,” Young wrote.

Local hospitals say that’s not the case. Providence Alaska Medical Center, which recently implemented crisis standards of care and treatment rationing in the face of the COVID-19 surge, and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium both said Saturday that there’s been little to no impact of their vaccine policies on current staffing levels.

“Our staffing shortages are not due to workers leaving over ANTHC vaccine policies,” Spokesperson Shirley Young said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Providence concurred.

“Currently, we are not aware of any resignations due to our vaccine policy,” wrote Chief Communications Officer Kristen Schultz in an emailed statement.

Rather, Schultz wrote that staff levels at Providence are being impacted by several other factors.

“This year – with a nationwide nursing shortage and a pandemic that continues – it has been difficult to fill many open positions, including nurse openings,” she wrote. “Providence Alaska Medical Center is typically able to augment staffing with travel nurses. The increased demand for travelers across the country has made filling open traveler positions more difficult.”

Additionally, Schultz wrote that staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 in the community have to quarantine until they are cleared to return to work, which also impacts the hospital’s staffing numbers.

“ANTHC has seen little to no impact at this time as our deadline for compliance is October 15th,” the statement from the consortium reads. “Rather, despite our best efforts to keep each other safe, our communities continue to be plagued by disinformation that is encouraging Alaskans to go unvaccinated.”

The resulting increases in COVID-19 patients, which in turn increase the workload for hospital staff, is the primary issue the consortium is responding to at this time, according to the statement.

While the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium policy deadline is on Oct. 15, Providence staff have until Oct. 18 to be vaccinated. The ANTHC policy allows for some medical exemptions, and Providence will require staff who are not vaccinated to have an approved medical or religious exemption.

Some gathered at Saturday’s listening session expressed worry over what will happen if they lose their jobs for not complying with workplace vaccine mandates.

A family nurse practitioner working for Southcentral Foundation, Dean Robinson, spoke about the situation he faces at work after decided he wanted to wait and get more information before getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Southcentral Foundation also has a vaccine requirement for staff. Robinson said he’s worked there for 16 years.

“I will no longer be working there as of Oct. 15 because I am not — for myself I have chosen not to get the vaccine,” he said. “I believe that’s a personal decision, and I feel like they have lost sight of where the organization ends and I begin.”

Robinson said he is “not anti-vax,” that he’s been vaccinated growing up and that his children have been vaccinated.

“This vaccine, I just wanted to tap the brakes on and get more information, and see what comes down the pipeline,” he said. “And that is firmly my choice. I believe when I’m in the clinic and I’m asymptomatic, I am not a ... health threat to my patients. If I were I wouldn’t be there.”

One registered nurse said she works at Providence Alaska Medical Center. She said she’s pregnant, and that her health care provider has advised her not to get the vaccine, but that Providence does not recognize pregnancy as contraindication, or condition that would warrant not getting the vaccine.

“Is Providence going to assume the liability if I get the shot?” the woman asked. “Can Providence tell me 100% the shot is safe for my unborn child?”

Another nurse, Kimber Miller, said that although she herself is vaccinated, she’s against mandating vaccines or the wearing of masks.

“I also feel like saying someone is vaccinated versus unvaccinated is causing a huge chasm in our community,” she said. “It’s causing horrible anger and discrimination issues. I really do not feel that it’s OK to force people to choose between providing for their family — providing food, shelter, warmth — or getting a vaccine. What’s it going to be next, they’re not going to be allowed to be part of our community?”

At one point in the listening session, Anchorage Chief Human Resources Officer Niki Tshibaka asked and series of call and response questions of the audience.

“Please stand a clap if you’ve applied for a religious exemption to the shot and been denied,” he said.

A handful of people stood and clapped in response.

“Please stand and clap if you’ve applied for a medical exemption to the vaccine, provided documentation from your physician stating that the vaccine could have significant harmful side effects to you, and been denied the request for that medical exemption,” Tshibaka said.

Again, a small handful of people stood and clapped.

“Please stand and clap if you’ve been bullied, threatened or harassed at work for not taking the shot or witnessed others who have been,” he said.

This time, the majority of people in the room got to their feet and clapped. Some whistled or cheered.

“Yes to liberty, no to tyranny,” one person called out.

When it comes to city staff, Bronson has repeatedly said he does not plan to mandate vaccines or masks within Anchorage. Following the listening session, Allard said it was important to hold because some members of the community are not being heard. She referenced the assembly’s last regular meeting, during which several medical professionals from Providence came and testified to the extreme stress being put on the hospital right now.

“There was a point where they were the only ones to speak, up to 45 minutes, and the public was short changed on that,” Allard said. “So we decided that it was really important that we bring the public into a listening session to hear everything they had to say.”

Allard said the listening sessions began several days ago, and spread through word of mouth.

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