[Update] Choice Not Force: Baptist Memorial employees, associates protest vaccine mandate

Published 7:34 pm Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Healthcare workers and their family, friends and associates from around the north Mississippi region gathered in front of Baptist Memorial Hospital North Mississippi to protest the vaccine mandate on Wednesday afternoon.

This event comes after Baptist Memorial Healthcare mandated all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 1. Protesters stood on the sidewalk alongside Belk Avenue holding an assortment of signs expressing their discontent at the lack of freedom and choice given to Baptist Memorial employees.

The event began at 4:30 p.m. and by 5:30, over a 100 people, including children, had joined the demonstration. Protestors could be heard chanting, “Hear our voice. Mandate Choice,” as cars drove by on a hot September afternoon.

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Organizers of the protest and employees of Baptist Memorial Hospital North Mississippi, Ashley Boatright; Kayla Warnock and Nurse Lacy Cunningham made an appearance, talked with fellow protestors and created signs along with Emergency Medicine Specialist Dr. John Witcher, M.D., a non-employee of Baptist though he has a special privilege to work there.

Witcher and his wife, Brooke, founded Mississippians Against Mandates last week and the organizations one stance is to oppose vaccine mandates. They acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic is a real and frightening phenomenon, but that it should not take away an individuals’s choice.

“We believe in informed consent and we think it’s a decision between patient and doctor,” said Witcher. “The patient should know the risks before taking or agreeing to be vaccinated.”

He censures the state and Mississippi State Department of Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs for not presenting the risks involved with taking the COVID-19 vaccines along with the MSDH’s regular press releases.

Witcher lists adverse reactions to the vaccine such as neurological issues, blood clots and cardiovascular complications. Risks such as these, religious beliefs and personal health issues are one of many reasons employees may abstain from getting vaccinated.

Nurse Informaticist Cunningham is one of the individuals who cannot get vaccinated for health reasons, although she is not against the vaccine itself.

“My whole family has gotten it … and I support it, but I think everybody deserves the right to make a medical decision that affects them, their health and their families,” she said. “A lot of other people have their reasons and I might not even agree with them, but I think that they have the right to choose.”

It is stated in Baptist’s news release that the hospital will have a process in place for employees who cannot get the vaccine for health and other reasons, similar to the process Baptist follows for the flu vaccine requirement.

Cunningham has been with Baptist for a little over 12 years. She said she loves her job and the employees at the hospital, but the mandate is insulting to many of the dedicated employees at Baptist Memorial.

“We need a little bit more respect, especially with what these nurses and healthcare workers have been through over the past year,” said Cunningham. “It’s a big slap in the face. You trust me to take care of you and make medical decisions and actions that take care of you, but you don’t trust me to make medical actions and decisions to take care of myself.”

Cunningham dislikes the division the vaccine mandate is causing in the community, but the protest feels necessary to her and for other Baptist employees who did not attend fearing it would impact their reputation or it would cost them their job.

“There’s a lot of people who are against this and I don’t know if it will change [Baptist Memorial Health Care’s] mind but I’d love for that vaccine mandate to be recalled,” she said. “I love my job and I don’t want to lose it but if you can’t stand up for freedom, I don’t know what else is worth standing up for.”

A representative of Baptist Memorial released a statement regarding the protest.

“We understand that some people have an opposing view regarding our decision to require the COVID-19 vaccine for our workforce,” they said. “While they have the right to voice their opinions, we have a responsibility to provide the safest environment for our staff members and patients, many of whom are vulnerable and immunocompromised.”

“Given we are in the midst of the greatest health care crisis of our generation, we made the decision that we believed to be in the best interest of our entire team, patients and community at large. This was not a decision we made lightly. We hope the recent regulatory approval the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine will further reassure our team members and community of the safety and efficacy of this vaccine.”