AUGUSTA — Against a backdrop of honking horns and chanted protests Monday, Alesha Davie listed the reasons she’s opposing the state’s new vaccination mandate for health care providers.
“I feel like we have the right to make a choice,” Davie, a nurse at Mount Saint Joseph Residence & Rehabilitation in Waterville, said. “This mandate is just the beginning of it, before others get mandated. I feel I have the right as a patient to refuse and put into my body what I want to put in my body.”
Davie was one of about 400 protesters, many in scrubs, who arranged themselves along both sides of State Street in front of the State House Monday morning to speak out against the order by Gov. Janet Mills requiring Maine health care providers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1.
That order has come as the number of reported cases of COVID-19 in Maine has been on the rise, due to the highly transmissible delta variant.
Shortly before noon, protesters marched around the State House and north on State Street, taking up positions around Memorial Circle, drawing blasts from vehicle horns and waves from passing drivers.
They chanted “Freedom not force,” and carried signs bearing messages like “Last year’s heroes, this year’s zeros,” “My body, my choice,” “I am 911” and “I deserve the same right to refuse as my patients.”
“I speak for me and my fellow nurses,” Davie, who works at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Waterville, said. “We’re all about to lose our jobs in five weeks.”
This mandate covers a wide range of medical care providers in Maine, not just nurses.
This is not the first such protest to take place over the vaccine mandate, issued last week.
On Saturday, about 300 people gathered near Maine Medical Center in Portland to protest the vaccine mandate issued days earlier, calling for personal choice in medical decisions.
That sentiment was echoed in Augusta on Monday.
Olivia Turner, a nurse at MaineGeneral Health for three years, took a brief break from thanking people for turning out to say she’s not anti-vaccine, but she’s opposed to compelling people to get a vaccine.
She said the vaccination doesn’t prevent COVID-19 and doesn’t stop infected people from spreading it. The only thing a vaccination does is lessen the severity of the infection, she said.
If she were to get the vaccine, she’d still have to wear a mask and goggles while at work.
“Then why can I not get (the vaccine) and still mask and goggle?” she said. “If you want to get it, get it. If you don’t want to get it, don’t get it. The government shouldn’t be forcing us to get it.”
Leading up to the mandate, more than 50 organizations representing millions of U.S. health care professionals urged all health care employers to require COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees. Groups like the American Medical Association, the American Nursing Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed a vaccination mandate at a time when the delta variant is causing another surge in coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide.
“Scientific data show that vaccination is our best protection against all strains of the virus that causes COVID-19,” Dr. Nirav D. Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said at the time the mandate was announced. “Given the elevated risk posed by the delta variant, this is a prudent step in preventing COVID-19 from putting more Maine people at risk, especially those who care for others.”
At MaineGeneral, spokeswoman Joy McKenna said the organization will follow the state mandate that requires all employees to be vaccinated or to provide a medical exemption. Employees who are not fully vaccinated or who lack a medical exemption as of Oct. 1 may choose to resign. If they do not resign, they will be terminated.
“We are working on a number of ways to offer the vaccinations to staff in time to meet the deadline set forth by the state,” McKenna said Monday. “Right now, we encourage staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine from one of MaineGeneral’s primary care practices, one of our community pop-up clinics, from MaineGeneral Employee Health Services, or by going to a retail pharmacy.”
She said MaineGeneral may lose some staff because of the mandate.
“While we would hate to see them leave MaineGeneral,” McKenna said, “we respect their personal decisions.”
For Davie, who worked between 60 and 80 hours a week during the pandemic, said she has cared for patients without contracting the virus herself, although some family members have gotten sick.
“It’s really sad that our patients will be left without us,” Davie said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t know how this is going to happen. It’s just got to be stopped.”