BERLIN — About two dozen employees of hospitals connected to North Country Healthcare protested NCH’s requirement that all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 Wednesday morning.
The protest occurred at the corner of 12th Street and Hutchins Street, which faces the entrance to Androscoggin Valley Hospital, a member hospital of North Country Healthcare.
Protesters could be seen holding signs and waving to passing motorists, some of whom honked their horns in apparent support of the protesters’ cause.
Bonnie Hamel, who was one of the protesters, said she is the physician and provider recruiter for NCH. Hamel said she opposes the policy that all NCH employees be vaccinated by Oct. 22.
“What matters to me more is our patients, because we all work at the hospital because we care about patients and patient care,” Hamel said. “Enough of us are willing to walk away from our jobs, it is going to put patient care in jeopardy.”
Hamel said as the recruiter of physicians and providers, it is already difficult for her to recruit qualified staff to the North Country.
“It takes everything I’ve got to get really good doctors to join our system and this just creates one more barrier,” she said.
Hamel noted that there are doctors in the system, even some who are vaccinated, who are not in favor of the mandate.
“Some of them got the vaccine because they were promised masks would go away and life would return to normal,” she said, adding that things are not going back to normal. “None of these vaccines have been properly tested, they have not received FDA approval, the ones that are out there right now.”
The Food and Drug Administration last month approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use in those who are 16 and older.
Fellow protester Mike Ramsey, who works for AVH as an X-ray technician in the radiology department, said he was participating in the protest because freedom of choice is important.
“America was founded on its principles, and freedom and choice are the most important founding principles,” he said. “To have great health care you have to have informed consent, and when you mandate things people don’t want, you to take away their freedom to choose.”
Ramsey said the local group’s protest was not the only one happening around the state. He also referenced protests in Lebanon and Concord, where similar groups are holding protests.
“I think it is important that we stand up for our freedoms,” Ramsey said. “I think that the freedoms in this country are being lost quicker than you think. I think we lose freedoms as we fall in love, a little bit at a time then all of a sudden.”
Monica Pilcher, who works as a physical therapist at the NCH Outreach Clinic in Gorham said she was participating in the protest for several reasons.
“One for myself,” she said. “I don’t want to lose my job and I think it is unfair that I have to choose between something that I don’t want to put in my body at this time and my job.
“I think it is an awful decision and an awful position to put me in,” she said.
Pilcher said she was also there to speak for other employees who couldn’t speak for fear of retaliation. She said she was also at the protest for the community because “I feel there are enough staff that are willing to leave over this mandate,” which would cause a severe loss of medical professionals in the area.
She said a number of positions are already open throughout the AVH system and if more employees leave, it will make those numbers much worse.
“You lose more people, your level of care and level of support for the community is going to go way downhill,” Pilcher said. “I just worry about the people who are trying to get things done for themselves or for their own health that will no longer have access to those things.”
Donna Godin, who serves as a public relations and marketing assistant for NCH had the following to say in a written statement:
“I’ve been employed by the hospital for 31 years. I love my job and my hospital family. I don’t want to be terminated for choosing not to take an experimental vaccine that isn’t preventing COVID and isn’t stopping the spread of COVID (with short-term risks and no long-term studies).
“As far as I am aware, our PPE and daily precautions have successfully worked in preventing employees from transmitting COVID to each other and our patients in our hospital since the start of the pandemic until now. I would love a mask option like we always have had if an employee opts out of getting the flu vaccine. And we all need to wear masks because the vaccinated can still get and give COVID. I really hope there is a stop to this vaccine mandate which will negatively impact the livelihoods of employees who are terminated, the already short-staffed employees and the quality of patient care and services that we are proud of.”
Members of the group said protests will continue Monday through Friday, with Wednesday being the largest event day each week.
North Country Healthcare Chief Operating Officer Thomas Mee said one of NCH’s core values is respect, and the level of respect that the organization provides to all of its stakeholders is the same level that the organization affords to its employees who happen to not agree with the policy.
“This policy (the vaccine requirement) is not subject to rescission,” Mee said.
“There are a handful of things we know now about COVID,” he said. “We know that masking and social distancing limit the spread of the disease and we know that the vaccine is the indisputable method to finally eradicate and to prevent it from mutations.
“Following the science was an easy decision for us and we recognize that the same fringe opinions that exist within the communities also exist within our own ranks.”
Mee said health-care workers throughout the country are having these same conversations regarding the vaccine.
“NCH is certainly not alone in this mandate, I am certain you are going to see other New Hampshire hospitals follow suit,” he said. “I think people are having to re-evaluate where they want to spend the rest of their careers.”
Mee, who is a registered nurse himself, said he is a believer in the vaccines and the science behind them, but he said many health-care workers are rethinking their desire to remain in health care.
“I think I would struggle if I had a disregard for the scientific method and yet had to work 40 hours a week in an organization that embraces the scientific method,” he said.
Mee said there are contingency plans in place in case employees leave the system.
“We knew going into this decision that we would lose employees,” he said.
Mee added that the system has around 1,000 employees.
“From a system perspective, we have enough employees to fill the holes,” Mee said.
He added that there are things that keep him awake at night but staffing his hospitals on Oct. 23 is not one of them.
“It is disappointing if people think this is subject to negotiation, it is not,” Mee said. “We have performed our due diligence, we have followed the science, we have made the decision with input from our boards and our communities and other community stakeholders, and there is no turning back. More than ever we are firmly committed that this is the right thing to do.
“As a health-care system you have an absolute obligation to provide the safest environment, not just for our employees and their families but for those 85 percent of employees that got vaccinated,” Mee said. “They deserve to practice in a safe environment. I think sometimes we lose track of that as we focus on the handful that take exception to the policy.”
Mee said since NCH announced the policy, they have had increasing numbers of staff get the shots and now 80-85 percent of staff have been fully vaccinated.
Mee said the vast majority of the staff is in support of the policy. He said that the communities are also in favor of the policy, adding that the positive feedback the hospital is receiving outweighs the negative 10 to one.
Mee said NCH’s policy was originally contingent on FDA approval of the vaccines because they recognized employees had concerns about what they deemed an “experimental” vaccine.
Mee said it would have been easy to sit back and allow every other hospital system to announce first, but NCH felt they owed it to the communities they serve to get their position out early and have the courage to do so.
Mee said vaccine mandates will be the new normal for health-care enterprises to have a 100 percent vaccinated workforce.
North Country Healthcare also provided a written statement, which includes in part:
“North Country Healthcare, the Mission of which is to assure consistent, high quality, accessible and integrated health care across the communities it serves, reminds our community members of the importance of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Administration of the vaccine remains the best method to reduce the transmission of the disease, which has seen an increase in both spread and significant illness as a result of the Delta variant.”
“At NCH, we recognize that some team members remain hesitant to receive the vaccine,” commented Mee. “We will continue to provide resources to all of our stakeholders, including the opportunity for any employee to meet privately with medical providers who will be glad to address any questions or concerns regarding vaccine hesitancy in a confidential manner.” Despite any such hesitancy, NCH remains committed to ensure that those being cared for in our facilities and homes are protected, as best able, from COVID-19.
“To date, the COVID-19 vaccine, has played a pivotal role in preventing or decreasing the severity of the disease in those who have been vaccinated,” continued Mee. “With 98.8 percent of recent COVID-19 cases being those of the Delta variant it is increasingly critical that all eligible to receive the vaccine, do so.”