Several employees of Baptist Health Hardin were joined Wednesday morning by members of the community in front of the hospital for a protest about a recent policy change by the health care system.
According to an email Monday to employees from Baptist Health CEO Gerard Colman, the company now will require all employees without exemptions to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The pandemic will not end without more of us receiving the vaccine,” Colman said in the email. “For this reason — and to support our mission to serve others — Baptist Health has decided to require all staff members to receive the vaccine.”
The email said that 65 to 75% of employees of the health care system, which includes Baptist Health Hardin, already have been vaccinated.
More than 70 people gathered by early Wednesday morning along U.S. 31W in front of the hospital in Elizabethtown. Some drivers would honk their support, including a Hardin County EMS ambulance driver, and others chose different expressions of ire for the crowd.
Hardin County Emergency Management Director Bryce Shumate said EMS employees are not subjected to the mandate from Baptist Health, but declined to comment further about the actions of the driver other to say he was addressing it.
Protest organizers Brittany Smith and Ashleigh Marcum, both Baptist Health Hardin employees, said after receiving the email, they joined forces to make the protest happen.
“Me and Ashleigh created a Facebook event and it blew up,” Smith said. “I created it hoping somebody would notice it.”
Smith said the posting had more than 290 shares and hundreds more interested.
“It definitely escalated quickly, which we’re happy for,” Marcum said. “We’re happy to know we’re not the only people that feel like this is wrong and that Baptist has overstepped by saying they want us to take something that isn’t even FDA approved at this point. Where’s the choice?
“My main stance comes from, a simple Google search will tell you it is not FDA approved, so there are risks. Anytime that there is a risk, there should be a choice involved,” she added. “It is my decision as a human being with rights to decide what I’m comfortable with putting in my body or not.”
Marcum said employees should be afforded the same rights they advocate for their patients to have.
“Any patient that walks through our door, they are going to be given option upon option of how to manage their medical care and we advocate for that as professionals in this field,” she said. “But as an employee, I’m not allotted the same rights to choose and be advocated for in my own decisions as a human being and a patient.”
Freedom of choice was cited by other protestors as their primary reason for coming, such as Alisha Perkins of Elizabethtown and Melissa O’Neil of Ekron, who both work from home in billing.
“We have the right to choose any other medical treatment or decline any other medical treatment and we’re not being allowed to make that choice at this time,” O’Neil said. “To be a several year employee with great reviews that this could cost you your job is something I felt I needed to come out here and stand with my co-workers and say, ‘This is not right.’ We are good employees, we work hard for this company and we should be able to make a medical decision on our own behalf.”
In a statement from Baptist Health Hardin President and CEO Dennis Johnson, he said the health care system’s focus is on patient care.
“Our top priority at Baptist Health Hardin is the safety of our patients, their families, our physicians and our staff,” he said. “While we respect the staff’s rights to express their opinions peacefully, we ultimately have the responsibility to protect the community members we are here to serve.”
Rose Shacklett of Meade County, who recently received treatment from the hospital said she is concerned about the Delta variant.
“I don’t like it one bit,” she said about being cared for by those who haven’t been vaccinated. “When you go to a hospital, you expect to be safe with those who are serving you.”
Marcum, who works as an RN in the North Tower of the hospital and cares for COVID and COVID-pending patients, said she takes considerable precautions, apart from the vaccine, when caring for patients to include an N95 mask, a face shield, a gown, gloves and proper hand hygiene.
“So we literally are going to the max of our PPE availability to protect ourselves and our patients from any bugs, but especially COVID,” she said. “We have multiple layers between our respiratory system and somebody else’s. So while I completely understand the fear and I understand there are concerns about carrying and spreading and all that, you have to understand we’re not just walking around. We are completely covered from head-to-toe just like we’ve been from the beginning of this to be able to offer people the most protection that we can against this virus.”
Johnson said ultimately vaccinations reduce the severity of the illness if contracted, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and death.
“Just yesterday, Dr. Aaron Mulhall, one of our leading pulmonologists and critical care physicians, shared that almost all of the COVID-19 related patient deaths we have had in 2021 were patients who were unvaccinated,” he said in the statement.
Neither Johnson’s statement nor Colman’s email mentioned termination or any other consequence for those choosing to remain unvaccinated, nor did it communicate plans for immunizing employees.
“Baptist Health Hardin’s first priority is to communicate all details with our employees prior to communicating them to the public,” officials said in a statement.
Legal experts say employeers have the right to require COVID-19 vaccinations.
Although she has a religious exemption, Smith said she wanted to support other’s right to choose.
“I believe it’s a basic human rights issue,” Smith said.” There’s a lot of people here who do not have either exception, medical or religious, and they’re going to be terminated if they choose not to take the vaccine. I find that to be overstepping.”