Vaccine opponents protest outside Stormont Vail following hospital's shot requirement for employees

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
A group of vaccine opponents demonstrate Saturday outside Stormont Vail Hospital, opposing the facility's requirement that staff be vaccinated against COVID-19.

A group of several dozen protesters demonstrated outside Stormont Vail Hospital on Saturday in opposition to the facility's requirement that its workers be vaccinated against COVID-19.

It makes Topeka the latest battleground for similar protests over hospital mandates, which have turned tense in other Midwest cities.

The demonstration was organized by Kansans for Health Freedom and Kansas Patriots, with many of the attendees coming from outside Topeka.

"Do you recognize we are under medical tyranny?" asked Sharilyn Henry, a retired Kansas City, Kan., medical professional. "Because we are."

It comes after Robert Kenagy, Stormont Vail's president and CEO, said Thursday that all staff will be required to get the shot by the end of October. It comes on the heels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision to grant full approval late last month to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

More:Stormont Vail Health to require its employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. Here's what that means.

It brings the health system in line with Kansas' other major hospitals, including the University of Kansas Health System and Ascension Via Christi. Scores of health networks nationally, as well as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, have been instituting similar requirements.

Kenagy said Stormont's COVID vaccine policy will leave room for valid religious and medical exemptions. 

But that flexibility wasn't enough for Tracy Conley, a registered nurse at Stormont Vail.

Conley has been vaccinated and said she isn't opposed to the shots. But she argued requiring the shots for the 15% of employees who haven't jabbed could cause staffing — already a major concern for the facility — to drop precipitously.

"If we were to lose all our ICU staff that is not vaccinated we would have to shut down half of our ICU," Conley said, adding she knew of at least one staff member who had already quit over the requirement.

She said it was unfair the shots be mandated when the long-term effects of the vaccine are unclear.

"I'm not against the vaccine. I'm against them forcing it on people who had COVID or had scientific reasons for not getting the vaccine," she said.

Extensive clinical trials have demonstrated the shots' safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows only 11 individuals per 1 million doses experience serious allergic reactions.

The CDC notes most adverse reactions to any vaccine usually occur shortly after administration and vaccine trial participants were studied for months to ensure its safety.

More:As Kansas officials eye bonus program for nurses, GOP leader threatens funds at facilities with vaccine mandates

Nonetheless, vaccine mandates have drawn the ire of some state lawmakers as well. Top legislative Republicans indicated Friday they would seek to bar hospitals with vaccine requirements from accessing up to $50 million in bonus pay for nurses.  

Attendees vowed to return next Saturday for more protests, including a second demonstration outside the Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.