'We should have a choice': Employees protest Ascension Sacred Heart vaccine mandate

Northwest Florida Daily News

MIRAMAR BEACH — Ascension Sacred Heart employees from across Northwest Florida took to the streets to Friday protest the health care network's newly implemented COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

About 100 employees, family members and supporters lined the street outside Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach waving signs with messages such as "No jab. No job" and "Ascension fires heroes."

A similar demonstration played out at Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola.

Rena McQuaig and others hold signs in front of Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach on Friday morning to protest the hospital's mandatory vaccination requirement for its health care workers.

Previously: 'No jab, no job': Ascension Sacred Heart employees file complaint over vaccine mandate

Related: COVID vaccine lawsuit is 'second-guessing military discretion,' Department of Justice says

Ascension announced its vaccination requirement for associates on July 27 and gave a Nov. 12 deadline for employees to comply. Unvaccinated employees were placed on suspension effective Friday, and will be terminated Jan. 4 if they do not come into compliance, according to Greg Crosslin, a Destin attorney representing about 80 doctors, nurses and staff employed at Sacred Heart locations in Walton, Bay and Escambia counties.

Crosslin and affected associates contend that the vaccine requirement is an infringement on the personal rights and beliefs of employees, and equates to "blackmailing" them into a medical treatment they view as, at best, unnecessary, and at worst, unsafe.

"Tell us what you're doing and why," Crosslin said Friday, asserting that Ascension's leadership had been unwilling to engage in meaningful discussion of the vaccination requirement.

"Why are you mandating a vaccine when there's no crisis?" he added, citing the drastic decrease in new cases and hospitalizations related to COVID. "You know, the bottom line is they're telling the staff you can either play Russian roulette and potentially have suicide by vaccine or keep your job. That's not a choice."

About 100 nurses, their family members and other supporters held signs Friday in front of Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast to protest the hospital's mandatory vaccination requirement for its health care workers.

Ascension announced its COVID-19 vaccination requirement for associates "following a thorough moral and ethical analysis," a company statement in July said. 

In a statement released Friday, Ascension said it continues to "put the safety of our associates and those we are privileged to serve and treat at the forefront of everything we do. This is why we have required our associates to receive both the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine." 

It continued, "We want patients to be assured and comforted with the knowledge that our doctors and nurses, other clinicians and associates, working in one of our hospitals or other sites of care, will either be vaccinated against both COVID-19 and influenza, or in the limited instances of exemptions, be complying with additional infection prevention protocols.

"We are grateful for the ongoing dedication and commitment of our associates and affiliated clinicians to provide compassionate, personalized care, not only through the height of the pandemic, but now, as our community continues to recover."

Still, some Ascension employees argue their employer has a funny way of showing gratitude.

Dana Dudinsky, an ER nurse at Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast, was among the protesters in Miramar Beach on Friday. She claimed Ascension had largely denied exemption requests based on medical conditions and religious beliefs.

A person holds a sign Friday in front of Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach to protest the hospital's mandatory vaccination requirement for its health care workers. About 100 people joined the demonstration.

"We should have a choice. We should have the freedom to do what we want with our bodies," Dudinsky said. "If we have natural immunity that works, we should be recognized for that. We should have the option to be tested, but we don't. We've all fought, we've all been taken care of COVID patients this entire time. Many of us have not caught COVID from that, and so therefore, we should have the choice to decide if we want (to be vaccinated) or not."

Ascension declined to answer queries about what steps would be taken regarding unvaccinated employees after the Friday deadline, or how many employees have sought or been granted exemptions.

About 100 nurses, their family members and other supporters held signs Friday in front of Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast to protest the hospital's mandatory vaccination requirement for its health care workers.

Addressed with the prospect of being forced out of her job, Dudinsky said, "It's very sad. I love taking care of patients and doing good for them, and I personally wish that we had the right to decide what we want to do." 

Alongside the protests playing out locally, there are fights on state and national fronts regarding both federal and employer-mandated vaccination requirements.

On the heels of a plan announced by President Joe Biden on Sept. 9., the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said workers in health care settings that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding must get their shot. 

A coalition of 10 states have joined a federal lawsuit in Missouri challenging the mandate.

Florida has not joined the litigation, but Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, told the USA TODAY Network-Florida "our legal team is looking into the best path forward to ensure that no health care worker has to face termination from his or her job over these mandates and the Biden Administration’s unprecedented threats and coercion."

In the interim, Ascension Sacred Heart is one of the many hospitals around the state that have issued vaccination mandates to their employees.

The Florida Hospital Association, led by onetime DeSantis political appointee Mary Mayhew, said in a statement to the USA TODAY Network-Florida that the Medicare/Medicaid regulations trump OSHA's authority and that health centers have no choice but to move forward with vaccinations.

Motorists on U.S. Highway 98 pass demonstrators protesting  Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast's mandatory vaccination requirement for its health care workers.

"Unless instructed otherwise by the courts, most hospitals will have little choice but to follow the federal mandates to ensure that millions of Florida seniors and the vulnerable who rely on Medicare and Medicaid maintain access to high-quality care at our facilities,” Mayhew said in an email.

Crosslin expressed frustration at the situation, saying that the shortage of health care workers in the state is already well-documented, and that this "draconian" mandate would only exacerbate the situation.

"There's another hospital just announced (a vaccine requirement) yesterday, HCA Fort Walton Beach (Medical Center)," Crosslin said. "They were announced and we were contacted by a dozen or so there."

Crosslin added that he has reviewed the Missouri complainants' case against the CMS, and he believes it has a good shot at success.

"(CMS) They're mandating a specific drug for all persons, irrespective of those person's personal issues or medical conditions. That's practicing medicine, which they say they're not allowed to do by statute."

Still, he said federally issues aside, the employees at Ascension Sacred Heart are residents of the community and added that he was proud to see other community members standing up on their behalf.

Alma DeJesus, Lyn Williams and Rena McQuaig were among a group of about 100 nurses, family members and supporters who protested in front of Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach Friday morning. The group was protesting the hospital's mandatory vaccination requirement for its health care workers.

"What was great about (Friday's demonstrations) was it wasn't all employees. There were doctors there, there were nurses there — some related, some not related to Sacred Heart," he said. "There were local retirees there who go to Sacred Heart. There was a couple of schoolteachers who took off work that I talked to when I was there. There was a firefighter who was there. So this is kind of a crosswalk of the community, which I thought was great."

He added, "We're gonna be the land of the free only as long as we're the home of the brave, because if these brave people at Sacred Heart don't stand up and fight back, this war is over."