Nurses leaving Aspen hospital after vaccine refusals
With Sunday deadline, women find it ironic they are out after their efforts to fight pandemic
Aspen Valley Hospital’s staff-wide vaccination mandate has nearly full compliance among its employees, but a handful of them won’t be rolling up their sleeves because they said it would betray their personal beliefs rooted in faith.
Three soon-to-be ex-employees of the public hospital, in interviews this week, said their work at AVH will be officially done after Sunday, which is AVH’s deadline for staff to be fully vaccinated. Despite the hospital’s stated position that it would provide exemptions to employees citing religious beliefs or medical reasons, if deemed valid, the three nurses said they are being fired because AVH rejected their requests for an exclusion.
Nancy Melville Bacheldor is one of those employees. A nurse for 38 years in Aspen, including the past 26 years as a midwife, Bacheldor said her superiors gave notice she would lose her privileges to work at AVH starting this past Monday due to her refusal to get vaccinated. The notice came after Bacheldor submitted a form and letter with AVH explaining both her religious and medical reasons for seeking an exemption, she said.
“I absolutely love what I do,” said Bacheldor, 60. “I love my patients and I feel bad I can’t provide them a service. … It’s breaking my heart to not be there for them.”
Bacheldor said she leads a healthy lifestyle yet has an aversion to vaccines. She received her last vaccination, a Tdap shot, in 2016 for protection against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. Bacheldor said she suffered from a shortness breath and a fever within 24 hours of getting the shot. The health risk posed by a vaccination, along with her spiritual beliefs and nondenominational Christianity, should have sufficed for her to receive an exemption, Bacheldor said.
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The hospital in the first half of September announced vaccine requirements as a condition of employment; employees were given until Oct. 31 to get fully vaccinated or face termination. As of Thursday morning, 98.5% of the hospital’s payroll of approximately 520 employees had been inoculated, according to AVH CEO and President David Ressler.
The noncompliant staff members total eight, four of whom work on an as-needed basis, he said.
The decision to terminate the employees rests with a hospital commission of five to six clinicians that “involves physicians and staff,” Ressler said. One employee seeking exemption was given a medical clearance and is regularly subjected to COVID-19 tests, he said.
“The committee made the call,” said Ressler, expressing confidence that the committee’s decisions were made impartially and fairly after a thorough review of the exemption applications before them.
“I can’t speak to their specific deliberations but they did a lot of research and were very thoughtful in their discussions with each case,” Ressler said.
Ressler also could not talk specifically about the employees’ exemption requests because they are personnel matters with privacy protections.
“The process was designed to be fair and impartial and I can’t speak to it any more than that, but in terms of them being long-time members of our medical staff … it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking and I don’t have any words to describe it. They made their decision and I respect it and that it is heartbreaking for them, and this is a very sad time.”
The Aspen hospital modeled its policy after one issued by the Colorado Board of Health, which at the urging of Gov. Jared Polis passed an emergency requirement Aug. 30 that all licensed health care staff in the state get vaccinated by Nov. 1.
That mandate required Aspen Valley Hospital to ensure to the state that all of its employees were fully vaccinated, Ressler said, “because our license is granted by the state, and so that’s what’s at risk — our license — and potentially a fine or other remedies if we don’t comply with this rule.”
‘Very ironic’ situation after pandemic fight
The three nurses said their time at AVH is ending after they worked through the demands of the pandemic, and now they’re being shown the door because they won’t get inoculated. Face-coverings are part of the job, so they mask up regularly, they said, also explaining that they are not so-called anti-vaxers.
“This is very ironic that the same health care providers who were expected to and told to take care of patients who might or might not have COVID after the last year and a half are suddenly now unsafe to care for patients,” said Jeanne Johnson, who’s leaving AVH after 15-plus years in obstetrics.
She added, “I kept my beliefs about the vaccines totally to myself. I didn’t criticize employees who got vaccinated; I didn’t ask anyone their vaccination status. I didn’t judge anybody. And most of my fellow co-workers were unaware of my vaccination status until I was let go. I believe that I have the right to make the choice about what is the best medical decision for my body.”
The hospital commission’s decisions were informed in part by report done by Vanderbilt University concluding most organized religions aren’t opposed to vaccines, “however some have considerations, concerns or restrictions regarding vaccination in general, particular reasons for vaccination, or specific vaccine ingredients.”
The Vanderbilt report cited objecting denominations as Dutch reformed congregations, Faith Tabernacle, Church of the First Born, Faith Assembly, Endtime Ministries, and Church of Christ, Scientist.
The three nurses said they practice nondenominational Christianity, and though they could have joined one like Endtime Ministries to be granted an exclusion, they didn’t entertain that scenario because it would be disingenuous.
“My spiritual belief is that my body is a precious vessel from God that I will be available to heal myself, that I don’t need a vaccine to assist with that,” said Krista Cashin, who has worked at AVH the past three years as a lactation consultant, a role in which she helps post-partum mothers feed their newborns.
“I have a hard time with this as a nurse, because I believe I would never give the vaccine to anybody that doesn’t want one,” she said. “I don’t believe we have the full picture, and one of the first things we learn as a nurse is to do no harm. I don’t believe right now that we have enough information to be giving vaccinations to people, so that is another reason my nursing career might end.”
Cashin, 62, said she has been a nurse for 38 years, just like Bacheldor.
Bacheldor and Johnson said they have financial flexibility that allows them the time to seek another line of work, though they consider nursing to be their professional livelihoods. However, other AVH employees opposed to vaccines were forced to get jabbed so they can keep their jobs and feed their families, they said.
“Nancy and I both feel blessed that we could make a decision that was right for our faith,” Johnson said. “A lot of people don’t have that freedom, and they are forced to do something medically, ethically or morally they don’t feel is right for them.”
Individual liberties and the current laws
Certain workplace laws protect employees from health care mandates, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Yet a U.S. District judge ruled Sept. 24 that a health care employer in Cincinnati, which was being sued its vaccine mandate for workers, was within its legal rights to adopt and enforce the policy.
“If an employee believes his or her individual liberties are more important than legally permissible conditions on his or her employment, that employee can and should choose to exercise another individual liberty, no less significant — the right to seek other employment,” U.S. District Judge David Bunning wrote in his ruling.
And more than a century ago in 1905, the U.S. Supreme court upheld a smallpox vaccine mandate in Massachusetts.
Current litigation elsewhere includes a discrimination suit alleging the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s vaccine policy discriminates against people of faith, as well as a suit against the NorthShore University HealthSystem over its mandate.
Bacheldor and Johnson said they aren’t looking to sue, but that they believe Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could apply to their situation.
Title VII “does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences” and “objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as ‘religious beliefs’ under Title VII,” according to guidance the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released Monday.
The guidance noted that employers can ask for more information from employees seeking an exemption from a vaccine policy for religious reasons, while also assuming the workers are sincere about their beliefs.
“EEOC guidance explains that the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar,” the guidance said. “Therefore, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance. However, if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.”
Bacheldor and Johnson said they gave detailed, written explanations for their religious exemptions, but they believed their exits were imminent before their applications were reviewed.