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Hundreds protest employer vaccine requirements at Idaho Statehouse

Those attending the rally say they believe private healthcare employers' decision to require workers to get vaccinated or lose their job amounts to discrimination.

BOISE, Idaho — Several hundred people gathered in front of the Idaho Capitol Building Thursday morning as part of a protest against private healthcare companies that say they will require their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Primary Health, Saint Alphonsus Health System, and St. Luke’s Health System all announced last week that their employees have been given a deadline to either get vaccinated against the infectious respiratory illness that has killed 2,165 Idahoans and sickened tens of thousands more, or face termination. 

Hospital leaders have argued that ensuring health workers are vaccinated is critical to protecting patients and workers and guaranteeing that there will be enough healthy staff members to care for patients as the coronavirus Delta variant continues to spread. Vaccination for other illnesses, including a yearly flu shot, is already required for employees at most medical facilities across the state. 

About 40% of Idaho's population has received at least one vaccine dose, lagging behind the national average. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 99 percent of new coronavirus cases are being detected in people who are unvaccinated. 

Those who oppose the requirement, like the crowd that gathered at the Statehouse Thursday, say it is not fair to tie their choices about their own health to their employment. 

Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who spoke ahead of the rally, said she thought that telling people to get vaccinated or find another job amounted to "discrimination" that "flies in the face of principles of liberty and justice." 

"The issue here today is not the effectiveness of the vaccine," she said. "The issue at hand is a matter of individual liberty and freedom. Those who have made the personal medical choice not to take the vaccine deserve to have their decisions respected."

Kelsey Baker, a registered nurse, said Idaho is already grappling with a staff shortage that will be exacerbated if nurses like her lose their jobs - issues that will create longer waits and worse outcomes for sick patients.

Baker estimated that 30% of RNs and LPNs across the state don't want to get vaccinated and face losing their jobs as a result.

"Imagine what the nursing-patient ratios will look like then," she said. "And it is going to impact our rural areas even more than the Treasure Valley, because rural areas already suffer a huge healthcare access gap. Imagine if those hospitals in rural areas fail. Imagine if their clinics shut their doors."

Attendees at the rally listened to speakers and music and waved signs with slogans like "My Body My Choice," "Legalize Freedom," and "Essential to Expendable."  

Dr. Samuel Petersen, a dentist in Eagle, accused medical providers of "playing God" and compared making someone get vaccinated without their consent to rape. 

"It was only a year ago when all the nurses and doctors were celebrated for being the first responders in this crisis," he told the crowd. "Are we now expected to abandon them after they spent the last year on the front lines? Does their perspective, their experience, their truth matter? Or was the support just public posturing and empty virtue signaling?" 

Teresa Blair, a certified nurse-midwife who said she is a contract employee at St. Luke's, said she was "very disappointed" at the hospital's decision. She added that she doesn't think she should be forced to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

"I don't feel like I need a vaccine," she said. "I have natural immunities."

Blair said she fears losing her livelihood and is unsure what she will do when St. Luke's September deadline to prove she is vaccinated or get a job elsewhere rolls aroud. She hopes to qualify for a religious exemption, citing her membership in the LDS faith. 

It is legal for Idaho healthcare providers and other private employers to require their workers to get a vaccine or lose their job because Idaho is an at-will employment state, meaning an employer can terminate an employee for any reason, with the exception of their sex, gender, race, religion, national origin, age or disability.

Blair said she was determined to attend the rally as a way to speak out against a requirement she feels infringes on her rights.

"I think there's a lot of energy here, and there is a lot of reasonable thinking," she said of the gathering. "I've heard over and over again that we are not against the vaccine, we're against the mandate."

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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