MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Dozens of protesters, wielding signs and American flags, lined the sidewalks of Patteson Dr. on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 28, to protest West Virginia University Health System’s decision to mandate vaccines for all employees.

WVU Medicine is giving all employees until Oct. 31 to receive both doses of their COVID-19 vaccine. However, many people, including Saturday’s protesters, think the hospital system is overstepping and not respecting their civil rights.

Lee Attardi protesting the vaccine mandate

“I think it’s really wrong no matter where you stand on the vaccine for yourself, you can’t force that decision on anyone else,” Lee Attardi, a healthcare worker, said. “And, I don’t — I believe it’s a safe vaccine. I really do. But, we don’t know what happens in a year, or three, or 10. Anyone who says otherwise is really being unethical. There is no proof. There’s a lot of hope, and I think it’s a good one, but it’s not OK to force someone into it.”

Protesters cited many different reasons for protesting the vaccine mandate. But doubt about the research behind the jabs was one of the most cited reasons. Attardi was not alone in her fear about what the vaccines could potentially do down the road.

“At the end of the day, with the vaccine — and it’s still in early stages of development and research, I’m not trying to halt that,” Tiffany Dillow, a radiologic technician said. “I just want the mandates to stop. It should not be a matter of force, you know? We should not have to choose against our health or our livelihoods in order to sustain employment.”

Tiffany Dillow holding her protest sign

Dillow said she saw her protest as more than just about her personal freedom. She also saw it as an attempt to warn the public against what she sees as something dangerous.

She said she has friends “who are no longer able to take care of themselves the way they were, provide for their families the way they were”. And she blames that directly on the COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’ve been made to believe that it’s a coincidence and that it’s very few people, but it’s more common than anyone is aware of,” Dillow said.

Right by her side was Registered Nurse Brianne Leichliter who said she was sick as a direct result of her Pfizer vaccine.

(Left to right): Brianne Leicliter and Tiffany Dillow holding their protest signs

“I had my second Pfizer on Feb. 3 and within six minutes I had an anaphylactic reaction,” Leichliter said. “I had hives on my arms, my arms and legs went completely numb. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart rate went to 160, which is twice the normal limit. I was admitted to the hospital because my heart rate remained at 160 for almost 12 hours. Within the following weeks, I was back in the ER four more times. I was a completely healthy 35-year-old mother, a wife, a daughter, a nurse. I have two children that —  I have been sick for almost six months. I’m in a better place now, but for those first several weeks and months, I was in the hospital.”

Leichliter said she is “still having ongoing issues” from her Pfizer doses and she feels betrayed because her employer told her that it was “safe”. She said she also felt let down by the research behind vaccines, which she also trusted.

She’s taken her jab and she can’t go back, so Leichliter said she was protesting not for herself, but for those who would now have to get vaccinated because of the mandate.

Protesters along Patteson Dr. on Saturday afternoon

“I’m here for my fellow human beings that feel like their rights are being violated and they are,” she said. “They are. This isn’t right. We’re being coerced. We are not giving our consent. They’re being threatened to be fired by October 31st if they are not vaccinated. They are requiring this for all employees, whether they work at home or if they’re pregnant or breastfeeding and a lot of folks just don’t feel that’s right.”

In response to the protest, WVU Medicine, said in a statement, that it respects workers’ rights to protest, but it still stands by its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

We respect people’s rights to express their feelings and opinions on this topic, but a public health crisis demands a public health response. Our providers are on the frontlines caring for the people in this community; we cannot have them sidelined due to COVID as doing so jeopardizes patient care. The FDA-approved vaccine, which hundreds of millions of Americans have received, is safe and effective.

WVU Medicine Spokesperson

This messaging is in line with the statement the hospital made when announcing the vaccine mandate on Monday, Aug. 23. It read in part: “Physicians, nurses and hospitals’ clinical leaders are confident in both the science and the safety behind the vaccine, with the benefits strongly outweighing the minimal side effects.”

One of the main reasons WVU Medicine wants to institute a vaccine mandate is because its employees have seen the destructive nature of COVID-19 up close and personal, Monday’s statement said.

“West Virginia hospitals have seen first-hand the devastation COVID-19 has caused to the people of our state,” the statement on the mandate said. “They understand how deadly this disease can be.”

Vaccine mandate protesters along Patteson Dr. on Saturday afternoon

One of those healthcare professionals is Chelsea Ebbert, a registered nurse in WVU Medicine’s Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU). Her job, during the pandemic, has put her face to face with some of the most critically ill COVID-19 patients that have come through the hospital system.

“We get the COVID patients that need to be put on ECMO, which — it’s a treatment that you have a large cannula that takes the blood from the patient, essentially accesses our lungs,” Ebbert said. “It goes through it, oxygenates the blood and it returns it back to the patient. It’s kind of like a last-ditch effort for patients that are not getting better. And in our unit, our max load is six patients at a time because we only have so many of those circuits and only so many trained nurses, and ECMO specialists, and perfusionists to take care of those patients. So, there’s a lot of criteria that you have to meet to even be a candidate for that therapy, so a lot of the sick patients can’t even qualify for it.”

Right now, Ebbert said, the CVICU is seeing younger patients, 50-years-old and younger. She’s seeing patients in their twenties, pregnant women.

“It’s everybody, it’s not just old and sick people,” Ebbert said. 

And in the CVICU, she said, all the critically ill COVID-19 patients all have one thing in common.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the hospital, but I know that every patient in our unit is not vaccinated,” Ebbert said.

Like her employer, Ebbert said she respects people’s rights to protest, but she still firmly sides with people getting vaccinated.

Dillow and Leichliter protesting the WVU Medicine vaccine mandate

She said people are not seeing what she has been seeing in the CVICU for the past year and a half.

“This has definitely been the most trying year of my whole career,” she said “I’ve been a nurse for five years. I was a nursing assistant before I graduated when I was in school. And it’s just been really difficult because as a nurse you want to help everybody. You want everybody to get better and some of these patients — we’re doing absolutely everything that we can, t’s just some of them aren’t getting better and they still die.”

Even if patients survive their bout with COVID in the CVICU, Ebbert said, it is not smooth sailing afterward. There are “long-term” effects that linger on and affect people’s quality of life, the registered nurse added.

Younger patients who were perfectly healthy before are now seeing heart and respiratory specialists to deal with the side effects of their COVID infections.

This is why Ebbert does not side with the healthcare workers who protest the mandate, but she instead is urging everyone to get vaccinated.

“The vaccine not only prevents the spreading, but also if you are to get it, you’re not going to end up being as sick as you would be if you don’t get the vaccine,” Ebbert said. “You’re not going to need an ICU bed that’s unavailable. You’re not going to need an ECMO circuit that’s unavailable. It’s just prevention.”

If more people get vaccinated, Ebbert said, then it would stand to reason that fewer COVID patients would end up in the CVICU or any other hospital beds.

Those beds, she said, are being occupied by COVID-19 patients and leaving little to no room for patients with other sicknesses.

Attardi protesting on Saturday afternoon

“COVID is not just affecting COVID patients, it’s affecting all patients that need care,” Ebbert said. “It’s affecting patients with heart conditions. It’s affecting patients with traumatic accidents that you never plan on having. Those patients that need surgery for cancer. It’s affecting everything because the hospital is overfilled not just ours. I know it’s around the country. Healthcare is just stretched to its max.”

Her unit, the CVICU, has received requests from all around West Virginia and even other states for patient transfers. But they have to deny those requests because the resources simply are not available.

This is the reality we live in now, but Ebbert argued it does not have to continue to be if more people got vaccinated.

“I think it’s easy for me to say go get the vaccine because I’m working with it every single day,” Ebbert said. “I’m seeing these patients every day I go to work the average person is not witnessing the awful things that I’m seeing. But, it’s been very traumatic the last year and a half of being a nurse or just working just in healthcare in general. It’s been hard for the whole team.”