When nurse Julia Buffo was told by her Montana hospital that she needed to be vaccinated against COVID-19, she responded by filing paperwork stating that the vaccines went against her religious beliefs.
She quoted various verses from the Old and New Testaments, including a passage from Revelations that vaccine opponents often cite to compare injections to the “Mark of the Beast.” She told her superiors that God is the ‘ultimate guardian of health’ and accepting the vaccine would make her ‘accomplicate in evil’.
Religious exemptions like the one obtained by Buffo are increasingly becoming a workaround for unvaccinated hospital and nursing home workers who want to keep their jobs despite federal mandates taking effect across the country this week.
In some institutions, religious exemptions are invoked by staff and overwhelmingly endorsed by managers. This is a tricky question for hospital administrators, who struggle to maintain adequate staffing levels and are often reluctant to question the legitimacy of requests.
“We are not going to have a Spanish inquisition with Torquemada to decide whether or not your religious exemption is granted by the Grand Inquisitor,” said Dr. Randy Tobler, CEO of Scotland County Hospital in Missouri, where about 25% of 145 employees are still not vaccinated and 30 of them have benefited from exemptions.
Tobler, who is vaccinated, said some employees had threatened to quit if they had to get vaccinated.
“For people who want to judge what we’re doing in rural America, I’d like them to come and put themselves in our shoes for a little while, just come and sit at the desk and try to staff the place” , Tobler said. .
At Cody Regional Health in Wyoming, about 200 of 620 staff members requested religious exemptions and most were granted. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte last week pledged his support for “defending Montanas from discrimination based on their vaccination status” in an open letter to medical workers and urged the unvaccinated to consider applying for exemptions. And West Virginia lawmakers have put forward a proposal with healthcare workers in mind that would allow those who quit because their exemption was denied to collect unemployment.
Starting Monday, healthcare workers in 24 states – all but three of which opted for then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election – will need to have received their first dose of the vaccine or an exemption. The mandate already took effect late last month in jurisdictions that have not challenged the requirement in court, although enforcement action will not begin immediately.
It affects a wide swath of the industry, covering doctors, nurses, technicians, aides, hospital volunteers, nursing homes, home health agencies, and other providers who participate in federal Medicare programs. or Medicaid.
Beyond the federal mandate, some hospitals and cities have imposed their own requirements. One of the biggest is in New York, where civil servants risked being fired if they weren’t vaccinated by Friday. Military branches have their own vaccination mandates, but commanders have been reluctant to grant religious exemptions.
While the reasons given for seeking exemptions vary, the distant connection of vaccines to fetuses aborted decades ago is often cited – lab-grown cell lines from these fetuses were used in testing and manufacturing processes. . However, the vaccines do not contain fetal cells, and workers generally seek the exemptions without the support of major faiths and prominent religious leaders.
But as the health care mandate kicks in, hospital leaders recognize they see exemptions as a way to retain staff at a time when resources are already stretched thin.
“Our position was that we would want everyone vaccinated,” said Brock Slabach, director of operations for the National Rural Health Association. “But we also believe that access to care is extremely important.”
Similar stories abound across the country.
At the 25-bed community hospital in McCook, Nebraska, in the southwestern part of the state, about 20% of the 320 employees have not been vaccinated. About 35 have applied for exemptions, and more are still deciding what to do. The hospital rejected some claims based on specious religious reasoning.
“If it’s a full essay, like an essay on the science behind why it shouldn’t be allowed, or a full essay on why a certain political party or political figure is an idiot, what we have seen, we’re not going with this because it’s not religious at all,” hospital president and CEO Troy Buntz said. “We push them back, but I don’t know if d ‘other people even read the exemptions as much as they probably should.
In Mississippi, some hospitals have almost all of their employees vaccinated while others are closer to the 50% to 70% range, according to Richard Roberson, general counsel for the state hospital association. Since the mandate was announced, he has received dozens of calls asking how the exemptions work.
“I don’t know how many there will be, but we are in the heart of the Bible belt. And so it’s something that’s very near and dear to everybody’s heart,” Roberson said.
And at the 14-bed Holton Community Hospital in rural northeast Kansas, 28 of 193 employees were granted religious exemptions and one was granted a medical exemption. The mandate has helped boost staff vaccination rates from around 75% to nearly 87%, but some young nurses remain hesitant due to disproven fears the vaccine could harm their fertility, CEO Carrie Saia said. .
Saia questioned vaccine resistance among medical staff, as they see every day that the people they care for who have the most serious consequences of COVID-19 are overwhelmingly unvaccinated. But “unfortunately with the COVID 19 pandemic, everything has become so political or polarized,” she said.
Buffo, the Montana nurse, said she was in a “state of terror” when the warrant was announced, fearing it could threaten her career. She wondered how much she was willing to sacrifice for her values, she added, and turning to the Bible strengthened her resolve to stand up to what she called the ‘insidious evil behind the vaccination campaign. “.
But Marcella Dahl, a nurse at a primary care clinic in Sidney, Montana, said she felt some people were abusing the exemptions and it was alarming that some religious leaders were encouraging the practice.
“Half the people who say that don’t even go to church,” Dahl said. “I think that puts everyone at risk.”
Denominational opposition to vaccinations in the country has historically been limited to a few small denominations such as Endtime Ministries and the Church of the Firstborn. But during the pandemic, some more traditional preachers have spoken out against vaccines from the pulpit.
“It’s new, and it’s a problem,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If you are not going to be vaccinated and you are going to take care of frail people, elderly people, you should get out of health care.”