CONTESTING COVID: Debate on resolution further illustrates divide over vaccines

0
1161
An overflow crowd packs the commissioners courtroom at the Hancock County Courthouse Annex to hear testimony on the resolution, which was symbolic and carries no force of law. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter) Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

This story was reported and written by Jessica Karins and Mitchell Kirk of the Daily Reporter staff.

GREENFIELD — Discussion over a symbolic resolution discouraging vaccination mandates became the latest example of the polarized environment surrounding COVID-19 protection in the county and around the country.

The resolution, language for which was suggested by the local conservative group Hancock County Indiana Patriots, was passed by the county commissioners after a long discussion at a meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 31. Many of its members came to speak in favor of it, mostly rejecting the testimony of a variety of medical professionals who came to the meeting to tout the scientific consensus in support of vaccines, face coverings and other measures to thwart the spread of COVID-19.

Members of the executive and medical staffs at Hancock Health listen to remarks from an attendee who was urging the county commissioners to approve a resolution opposing a vaccine mandate. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)
Members of the executive and medical staffs at Hancock Health listen to remarks from an attendee who was urging the county commissioners to approve a resolution opposing a vaccine mandate. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

Bryan Schrank, a leader of the Hancock County Patriots group, said it should be illegal for businesses to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine and that he hopes the state legislature will pass a law to that effect in its next session.

“Because our Indiana state legislators aren’t really acting, they’re not doing much to stand against the businesses and the universities that are mandating the COVID-19 vaccination, we thought it would be appropriate to go to our county commissioners and ask them if they would be willing to at least make a public statement against the use of vaccine passports and mandatory vaccination,” he said.

Schrank said he believes the passage of the resolution sends a “powerful statement to the businesses in Hancock County that we don’t want to invite this tyranny into our health.”

The commissioners’ courtroom was far more crowded than it is during a typical election night, let alone a typical commissioners’ meeting. Seats in the room were full, and dozens of people crowded into the hallway outside. Many citizens came to speak in favor of the resolution. Another contingent, including many Hancock Health employees in masks, scrubs and white coats, came to speak against it.

The resolution passed 2-1, with commissioners Marc Huber and John Jessup voting in favor and Bill Spalding voting against, but not before hours of discussion. The resolution does not have the force of law and will not prevent any business in the county from introducing a vaccination requirement for workers if it chooses to do so.

“It is the opinion of this board that it is an unreasonable invasion of privacy, except in certain health-care related activities and other exceptional circumstances, to require a person to disclose the status of his or her COVID-19 immunization for employment, education, access to events, or engagement in normal commercial and recreational activities,” the resolution said.

The resolution notes that the state of Indiana has passed a law prohibiting units of government from requiring COVID-19 vaccination or documentation of whether individuals have been vaccinated in order to access any government service.

“Lastly, the board encourages businesses and schools in the county to avoid any measures or mandates that require employees, customers, patrons, students or other persons to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, or to produce health information on COVID-19 immunization status, otherwise known as COVID-19 immunization passports,” the resolution continues.

Hancock Health submitted an alternative resolution to the commissioners which also affirmed vaccines as an individual health choice, but it included language that was more open to employer mandates, saying “businesses and other entities in Hancock County have the freedom to decide on the COVID-19 vaccine as it pertains to their entity.” That resolution was not read or discussed at the meeting.

Fifty-eight people signed up to speak at the meeting. The commissioners tried to limit each speaker to two minutes. Many speeches were passionate and followed by raucous cheers and applause from those who agreed. Jessup occasionally broke in to remind speakers and audience members to stay civil and refrain from personal attacks.

Those speaking in favor of the resolution said they believed everyone should be free to make their own decisions about medical care without fear of losing employment. Many were concerned specifically about the introduction of a potential vaccine mandate at the hospital and feared it could lead to mandates for employees, students and customers elsewhere.

“Vaccine mandates for some will lead to vaccine mandates for many more,” speaker Dennis Judy said.

Chrissy Scott, a member of the Patriots group and an employee of anti-vaccine mandate organization Stand for Health Freedom, said she quit her job as a nurse at HRH because of the hospital’s COVID policies. She called employer mandates “a form of coercion and unethical.”

Other speakers used their time to read out a letter they said was written by an anonymous HRH employee who was opposed to mandates. One attendee, Jeff Estricke, said he had already lost his job with a Marion County company because he did not get vaccinated.

“These people are serious about this,” Estricke said.

Some speakers repeated discredited ideas about the safety of vaccines, their manufacture, or the virus itself. Others compared vaccinations to the Holocaust, called COVID-19 a “plandemic,” or said they had used ivermectin, a medicine that treats parasites in horses and is not safe for human consumption, to fight COVID infections.

After more than two hours of testimony, even the commissioners seemed unclear about what the facts were. One speaker asserted that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine had not actually been approved by the FDA; it was, on Aug. 23. Commissioner Marc Huber later asked hospital officials to clarify whether the vaccine was FDA-approved. Hospital president and CEO Steve Long said it was, seemingly confused by how there could be disagreement about the basic facts.

Huber and Jessup, who voted in favor of the resolution, said they acknowledge COVID-19 is real and serious but believe a decision about whether to get vaccinated should be personal and not influenced by an employer.

“I’m not telling anybody not to do it (get vaccinated), I’m not telling anybody to do it,” Huber said. “I don’t think it should be mandated.”

Spalding, who voted against the resolution, said private businesses should be able to decide for themselves whether to make vaccination a condition of employment.

“I had a bigger issue with government overreach than I did anything else,” he said. “…People ought to have the freedom of choice, and businesses ought to be able to choose the things they do and let our patronage be the guide to whether they continue making that choice.”

Long told the Daily Reporter after the meeting that the hospital understands there’s “a built-in conflict” between advocating for freedom of choice for individuals as well as businesses, organizations and other entities. He added he was not surprised by the commissioners’ decision.

“We did not come here expecting the vote would turn out a different way,” he said, but rather to express their experience throughout the pandemic.

During the meeting, Long and several other hospital representatives recounted the challenges of taking care of patients during the pandemic; promoted vaccination and masking; asked the commissioners to trust in their expertise; and asked the commissioners to vote against the resolution.

Dr. Markian Bochan, an infectious disease specialist with Ascension Medical Group who’s been helping Hancock Regional Hospital care for COVID-19 patients, addressed attendees virtually via a computer. He said he’s personally seen over 2,000 COVID-19 patients, has had over 10,000 exposures to COVID-19 patients and has worked on vaccines with the same kind of technology used by COVID-19 vaccines.

Bochan said COVID-19 patients who are being admitted to hospitals and dying are overwhelmingly unvaccinated. He acknowledged that those who are vaccinated can still get infected in what are known as breakthrough cases, but that they’re rare. As of Wednesday, Indiana has had 12,783 known breakthrough cases — 0.416% of fully vaccinated individuals, according to the state department of health.

“I encourage everybody here to understand true peer-reviewed data on the current COVID-19 vaccines,” Bochan said. “They are effective and safe. They are free. It is the one thing you can do right now to protect yourself, your family and your fellow Americans.”

Dr. Manish Chheda, an internist and hospitalist at Hancock Regional Hospital, recalled treating dozens of COVID-19 patients and the large amounts of oxygen many often require. The breakthrough hospitalizations he’s seen have usually been mild; those patients don’t need much oxygen and require short stays. Ones that require longer stays are almost always unvaccinated, he continued.

“I know many people regret these decisions when it’s too late,” Chheda added.

Dr. Julia Compton, president of the Hancock Physician Network, highlighted the hospital’s support for the part of the resolution that supports freedom of choice for individuals, families and the organizations for which they work.

“It is with our experience to date that we do not support the remainder of the resolution that essentially discourages COVID-19 vaccinations,” Compton continued. “In today’s world of both misinformation and disinformation, uncertainty and who to trust, I would ask you to consider where your trusted relationships have been built. Were they built in our town, in our county, in our community?”

Dr. Mike Fletcher, vice president and chief medical officer of Hancock Regional Hospital, asked the commissioners to trust him and his colleagues.

“Please help your local Hancock Health physicians and nurses do what we do best — prevent severe illness and save lives — by encouraging vaccination of all in our community and by not making it more difficult for employers to do what they believe is best for their employees, their businesses and Hancock County,” Fletcher said.

Others outside the hospital spoke in support of vaccinations as well, including Dr. Gary Sharp, Hancock County health officer.

“If our arguments tonight increase the number of vaccines and we save one life, I think this whole evening will have been well worth it,” Sharp said. “Hopefully we have been able to show that the vaccine is our best course to elude this virus, to kill this scourge.”

Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association, which represents 170 hospitals across the state, shared support for Hancock Regional Hospital’s stance as well.

“Just like each individual, every employer needs to be able to weigh the evidence of COVID vaccines’ effectiveness and make informed decisions,” Tabor said.

Long told the Daily Reporter that despite the difference of opinion between the hospital and majority of commissioners, there’s no ill will.

“We have a very good relationship with county leadership,” he said. “This does not change that. We are on the same team.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”By the numbers” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

COVID-19 data through early Wednesday, Sept. 1

Hancock County

  • 614 new tests administered (Aug. 9-31)
  • 68 new cases (Aug. 31)
  • 8.7% seven-day (Aug. 19-25) positivity rate all tests, 8.7% cumulative rate
  • 0 new deaths
  • 133,021 total tests administered
  • 9,879 total cases
  • 12.5% seven-day (Aug. 19-25) positivity rate unique individuals, 19.5% cumulative rate
  • 154 total deaths
  • 40,726 age 12+ fully vaccinated (61.2% of that population)

Indiana

  • 53,909 new tests administered (April 24, 2020-Aug. 31, 2021), 12,598 new individuals tested
  • 4,822 new cases (Aug. 27-31, 2021)
  • 11.2% seven-day (Aug. 19-25) positivity rate all tests, 8.5% cumulative rate
  • 29 new deaths (Aug. 19-31, 2021)
  • 12,336,129 total tests administered
  • 863,299 total cases
  • 18.6% seven-day (Aug. 19-25) positivity rate unique individuals, 22% cumulative rate
  • 14,078 total deaths
  • 442 total probable deaths
  • 50.8% ICU beds in use – non-COVID
  • 28.4% beds in use – COVID
  • 20.8% ICU beds available
  • 18.2% ventilators in use – non-COVID
  • 10.4% ventilators in use – COVID
  • 71.4% ventilators available
  • Hospital census: 2,294 total COVID-19 patients (2,037 confirmed, 257 under investigation)
  • Delta variant: 98.4% of samples in August
  • Not variant of concern: 1.1% of samples in August
  • Alpha variant: 0.2% of samples in August
  • Gamma variant: 0.2% of samples in August
  • 105 total confirmed cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children
  • 3,107,722 age 12+ fully vaccinated (53% of that population)
  • 12,783 breakthrough cases (0.416% of fully vaccinated individuals)
  • 322 breakthrough hospitalizations (0.01% of fully vaccinated individuals)
  • 93 breakthrough deaths (0.003% of fully vaccinated individuals)

Source: Indiana Department of Health

[sc:pullout-text-end]