Protesters wave a U.S. flag and homemade signs opposing statewide vaccine and mask mandates outside of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario on Wednesday, Aug 25. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

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ONTARIO – People chanting. Kids holding signs. Cars and trucks – even an Ontario Fire Department rig – blaring their horns and rolling down their windows to shout words of support. 

A protest of Gov. Kate Brown’s Covid vaccine mandate for government, school and health care workers lit up the corner of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario and Lions Park on Wednesday, Aug. 25, as more than 80 people amassed on both sides of Southwest Fourth Avenue.

The protest was organized by Stand For Kids - Malheur, a Facebook group which had less than 200 members as of Wednesday night, but which generated significant turnout. 

Person after person interviewed by the Enterprise cited the principles of “freedom” and “choice” as motivating factors for why they chose to protest.

Announcing the Covid vaccine mandate for state employees on Aug. 10, Brown said the measure was necessary to avoid a crisis in hospital capacity in Oregon. 

“Oregon is facing a spike in Covid-19 hospitalizations - consisting overwhelmingly of unvaccinated individuals - that is quickly exceeding the darkest days of our winter surge,” said Brown. “When our hospitals are full, there will be no room for additional patients needing care - whether for Covid-19, a heart attack or stroke, a car collision, or a variety of other emergency situations. If our hospitals run out of staffed beds, all Oregonians will be at risk.”

The state employee vaccination mandate affects not just traditional government workers but also fire department staff and corrections staff, the latter a significant demographic in Ontario because of the presence of Snake River Correctional Institution. According to the Oregon Employment Department, more than 1,200 people work in state government in Malheur County. 

A separate mandate, issued Aug. 19, requires Covid vaccinations for all health care and school staff, as well as school volunteers. 

In all cases, those who do not comply with the mandates by Oct. 18 risk losing their jobs. Good faith religious and medical exemptions to the mandates, however, will be honored.

In a letter to Gov. Brown Wednesday, state Sen. Lynn Findley and Rep. Mark Owens highlighted the potentially catastrophic fallout to communities if large numbers of employees resign rather than get vaccinated.

Protest organizer Nicole Richardson Myers, who administers the Stand For Kids - Malheur Facebook group, said that she had been inspired by similar rallies in Boise. 

“We just thought it would be good to bring awareness to it (the vaccine mandate),” she said. 

Richardson Myers, a physician assistant, said that she routinely made health recommendations to patients, but that those decisions were ultimately their choice. She said the decision to take or not take the vaccine should be in the same category. 

Richardson Myers said that the location for the protest was chosen mainly based on the high traffic at that street corner, but also pointed out that Saint Alphonsus supports a vaccine mandate for all employees. 

Trinity Health, which owns the Saint Alphonsus medical system, announced the mandate July 8 and set a deadline of Sept. 21 for employees to be vaccinated. 

Shelly Dennis was one of several women at the protest collecting signatures in support of a recent letter by Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe declaring that he would not enforce the mask mandates. 

“I personally won’t get (the vaccine),” she said. “I think it should be the person’s choice to have the vaccine.”

Her sign read, “Not anti-vax, pro-choice.”

A group of children protesting masks and vaccine mandates cheer outside Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario as passing cars honk their horns in solidarity on Wednesday, Aug 25. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

Cathleen Vokral, who works as an accounting technician for the Oregon Department of Corrections, said that her job is unique, and that she is uniquely qualified to do it. She has worked in many jobs at the agency and considers herself “a model employee.”

“I’m one of the highest trained crisis negotiators in the nation,” she said. “It’s kind of hard when you have a resume like that to face losing your job over not wanting an experimental vaccine.” 

Dr. Joshua Holweger, medical director of the Pulmonary Clinic and ICU in Nampa, said that the Covid vaccination process was not an experiment.

The CDC says that "millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history" and that the vaccines are "safe and effective."

Yet Vokral believes that the vaccine mandates will eventually be extended to children, with the endgame of mandatory birth control through which the government can control the population. 

“I feel like we need to stand up to governmental tyranny and putting our foot down,” she said. 

“The idea that there’s some kind of cynical experiment going on?” said Holweger. “That’s not the kind of thing I see any evidence for at all.”

Isaac Walker, 17, was one of many young people accompanying parents to the protest. He said that he had seen many reports about the vaccine mandates and wanted to support the protesters’ cause.

“I feel like (the vaccine’s just not tested enough, and all of the tests that they have had don’t have the best results,” he said. “And all the people that come out and say something about it usually get hushed up in the next week or so.” 

A recent study from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 94% effective in preventing symptomatic Covid among health care workers with high degrees of exposure to the illness. 

Andrew Hillsberry, a registered nurse who said he is the main breadwinner for his six children, said that if his employment was terminated next month as currently planned, he was going to move to another state or change fields entirely. 

“I don’t deny that Covid is real. I work with Covid, I’ve had Covid personally,” he said. “The problem with the masking is it creates a false sense of security. There’s exposure no matter how many masks you have on.”

Brown, who also instituted a mask mandate this month, said that on the contrary, masking was another pillar of the state’s strategy for reducing Covid cases.

“By wearing masks, all of us - vaccinated and unvaccinated - can help ensure that a hospital bed staffed by health professionals is available for our loved ones in their time of need,” she said in the Aug. 10 press release. 

The CDC says that the virus spreads through droplets and that “masks are a simple barrier to help prevent your respiratory droplets from reaching others.”

Kris Smith, who works in an unspecified role on the clinical side of a local hospital, said she doesn’t have a clear future there with the vaccine mandate. 

“They’re trying to make us pick our jobs over our morals,” she said.

Smith said that she is suspicious of both the vaccine itself and the fact that it is now mandated. 

“I think it’s your body, your choice,” she said. “Everything else always has been.”

Three protesters stand with homemade signs dissenting the recent statewide mask and Covid vaccine mandates outside of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario on Wednesday, Aug 25. (AUSTIN JOHNSON/The Enterprise)

Leo Gonzales said that the recent FDA approval of the vaccine didn’t change anything for him because he doesn’t believe in it. 

“You can’t do it in nine months,” said James Gonzales, Leo’s son. The family includes workers at the state Department of Human Services, St. Luke’s and the Corrections Department, all of whom will be affected by the vaccine mandate. Three generations were present at the protest. 

“New means new, not unsafe,” said Dr. Brian Kitamura, medical director of the emergency room at Saint Alphonsus in Ontario. “Cars are safer than horses. New planes are safer than old planes. I haven’t seen anything to suggest the FDA approval of the vaccines was full of loopholes. They made particular delays in full approval precisely to avoid that concern.”

Yet according to James Gonzales, his family’s fight is not even about safety concerns around the vaccine.

“If it’s approved or not approved, it’s all a matter of choice,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to.” 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

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