As residents filled the street outside Montrose Memorial Hospital — circulating petitions and carrying signs in support of staff members who oppose mandatory COVID-19 shots — many of those employees clustered into the atrium outside of the hospital board’s meeting to air their own concerns.

Montrose Memorial Hospital Inc.’s board was not taking up a possible shot mandate at the Monday, Aug. 23 meeting, but many who spoke said they feared being forced to choose between their livelihoods and their right to make their own medical decisions.

Still others said the vaccine was experimental, had been approved too hastily, or that stats on long-term effects are insufficient.

“My heart breaks for the healthcare workers being given an ultimatum: Get it, or get fired,” said Julie Hines, a nurse at MMH for more than 20 years.

That possibility was poor thanks for a year and a half of dedicated and exhausting work helping the region through the COVID-19 pandemic, she and others indicated through their comments — “disheartening,” as one nurse put it.

“Yesterday we were heroes, today, we are disposable, because we are standing up for our rights too,” another nurse, who works in the Emergency Department, said. “This is not about a shot. … This is about you taking away our right to choose what each of us individually feels is right for our lives.”

The board called each speaker into the room individually. As each person was introduced, applause from outside the room obscured many of their names.

Jared Goodson, paramedic and ER tech, read a letter on behalf of a phlebotomist who suffered an anaphylactic reaction from the shot and was hospitalized for three nights.

“How did we go from supporting health care heroes in 2020 to ‘shame healthcare heroes’ for not getting the COVID vaccine in 2021? I shouldn’t have to choose between my career and my life,” Goodson read from the letter, which also mentioned panic attacks and ongoing fainting spells.

“We are watching medical rights being stripped away, the same rights that are drilled into us to protect our patients,” Hines said.

Workers — from medical providers to food service and cleaners — are leaving hospitals nationwide, creating crisis level shortages, she also said. “What will it be like when the hallways are full of sick people and no one to care for them?”

Greg Lefave, an area resident who does not work at the hospital, later also expressed concerns that a vaccine mandate would harm staff recruiting and retention.

COVID-related health issues are putting a strain on staffing levels, Dr. Matthew Cotham, an emergency room physician who does not oppose a shot mandate and is himself vaccinated, said.

“Our ER right now is the busiest we have been in the history of the hospital. We are seeing that around 12% of our entire visits for the last two months have been related to COVID,” Cotham said Tuesday, after having addressed the MMHI board Monday. (He said “COVID-related” means people came into ER displaying symptoms consistent with the virus, so doctors had to approach their cases as if they had the disease, although not all of these cases eventually resulted in a COVID diagnosis.)

Cotham said the number of staffers who were symptomatic and therefore unable to work meant that, although beds were available for general care at MMH, patients who ordinarily would be admitted could not be.

“We have had to transfer out three times the amount we usually do this year, mostly because of a lack of bed availability,” Cotham said.

In the last month, the number of people waiting two or more hours to be seen by an ER doctor increased from 4% to 13%, he said, although there are many factors at play in that.

“From the ER, we are just strongly urging everyone in the community to get the vaccine, because we do see the effects it is having right now,” Cotham said.

He expressed compassion for the nurses who spoke and others who feel uncertain, saying he hoped the FDA’s recent approval of Pfizer’s vaccine might help, since it shows extensive data to back the safety and efficacy of the shot.

According to what they told the MMHI board, staffers had their doubts. They said data on long-term side effects are lacking. To mandate a vaccine is to tread a dangerous path, one woman said, as well as “unethical and unlawful.” She called the vaccine essentially experimental and said she has treated several COVID patients who were vaccinated.

All through March of 2020, healthcare workers were told their personal protective equipment was sufficient to prevent the transmission of the virus between them and patients — what, she asked, had changed?

“The COVID-19 vaccine violates my rights to medical freedom and bodily autonomy. … Should you move forward with the mandate, we are prepared to push back,” the speaker said.

Courts in other states have upheld the lawfulness of vaccine mandates. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office could not immediately provide a position.

Cotham on Tuesday reiterated that the American Medical Association and more than 50 medical associations, including those for nursing, have endorsed the vaccine. He also said other hospitals have indeed decided the shot is ethical and moral.

“For me, the hospital’s duty is to provide care for our community and if we can’t maintain our staff because of sick calls, then we’re failing our moral duty to the community,” he said.

Miscarriages were among the adverse vaccine reactions MMH employees raised to the MMHI board on Monday. Miscarriages recorded by the hospital in the past month are more than in the previous year and occurred among the vaccinated, it was said.

The hospital did not immediately have data concerning miscarriage numbers. Cotham said he was not aware of an instance in which the vaccine may have caused a miscarriage.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data concerning vaccines and pregnancy.

Per CDPHE, that data: “did not find an increased risk of miscarriage among nearly 2,500 pregnant women who received an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine before 20 weeks of pregnancy. Miscarriage typically occurs in about 11-16% of pregnancies and this study found miscarriage rates after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine were around 13%, similar to the expected rate of miscarriage in the general population.”

Speakers inside the board meeting stressed that they were not necessarily anti-vaccine, but rather, are opposed to coercion, and Cotham said he understood their worries.

Vaccines can and do cause adverse reactions, including ones as extreme as the phlebotomist whose letter was read — but hundreds of millions around the world have received the COVID vaccine without an extreme reaction, Cotham noted.

He said he has cared for two people because of adverse reactions. “I feel for those folks. I think those stories tend to be very ‘sticky’ in people’s minds,” he said.

Cotham elaborated that, in general, people tend to hold on more to exceptional stories than average ones.

Between the start of July and Aug. 17, 27 people with COVID symptoms were admitted to ER; 22 were unvaccinated; one person’s vaccine status was not known and four patients, all in their 80s, were vaccinated, Cotham said.

Speakers Monday voiced concerns about being ordered to take a shot for a disease with a 99% survivability rate. Cotham said the data are clear that COVID is much deadlier than the vaccine.

Of more than 6.8 million vaccine doses administered in Colorado, there have been 9,130 reports of a reaction between last December and Aug. 13, the CDPHE said, in response to Daily Press questions. That is 0.1% of all vaccines administered during that period. Of the reported reactions, 623, or 0.009% were considered serious, again, per the CDPHE.

“Health care providers are required to report any incident or death that occurred after the COVID-19 vaccine, even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was related to the death. There are reports of 82 (0.001%) deaths that occurred after vaccination. In those cases, the CDC could not determine the vaccine was the cause of death,” the CDPHE said.

Providers are required to report adverse reactions through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which is used to monitor vaccine safety and is monitored by the CDC and FDA to determine if any vaccine or vaccine lot has a higher than expected rate of possible health problems, per the CDPHE. This system is one part of a broader safety system to monitor vaccines the FDA has licensed or authorized for use.

Montrose Memorial employee Kimberly Delgado said she is well aware of the process of vaccine development, but that vaccines are “powerful medication” and not all are well-understood. Some have even been pulled from the market after approval, she said, and because the COVID shots are new, the long-term effects are not known.

“I believe in vaccines, but I also believe in caution … and being responsible,” she said.

Speakers wanted the MMHI board to investigate their concerns before making a decision on requiring the vaccine. In addition to the concerns raised about the shot itself, more than one person reported some physicians as allegedly gloating when an unvaccinated patient presented with COVID-19. In one instance, a doctor allegedly reacted with “joy” when an unvaccinated COVID patient died.

That concern is being looked at very seriously and other concerns raised have been presented to the hospital’s senior leadership team, MMHI Board President Kjersten Davis said Tuesday.

The allegation that a physician was celebrating a death “horrified” Davis, she said.

“I have no personal knowledge if that was true. I would hope that it wasn’t. We are lucky to have the medical staff that we have. They are compassionate and dedicated and have proven that through the last one and a half years of COVID. I would hope that (allegation) is not true, but we are looking into it.”

No one speaking Monday night took an adversarial tone, but expressed concern and disappointment at the broader “hate” over the virus and the vaccine. Rather than outright refusal, some said they just wanted to defer the vaccine until more is known about it.

“This is a culture of hate and we must not let it divide us. As my employer, you will be overreaching your power by telling me what to inject in my body,” Hines said.

“I may be faced with the choice to take the shot or lose my job if the board decides to mandate the COVID shot,” Delgado said. “I have taken a sacred oath to do no harm to my employees, which I have (followed) in the last 12 years, but today, I will take that oath to do no harm to myself.”

Cotham said he wants to help others navigate what he believes will be inevitable — a mandate from the government, not the hospital, for healthcare workers to be vaccinated.

“This has created friction between the part of the medical community that feels strongly the vaccines help and the other parts that feel they are dangerous. It’s important for us all to be on the same page, giving patients the right information about things and not just our own opinion about what might be happening,” Cotham said.

Davis reiterated the MMHI board has not made a decision on a vaccine mandate.

“Our idea at this point is Gov. (Jared) Polis has asked the department of public health to impose a mandate for all healthcare workers to have the COVID vaccine. We’re waiting to see if that happens,” Davis said. “ … I thought people were were very professional and ardent about their views.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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