By Doni Chamberlain and Patricia Graves
Publisher’s note: Please join me in welcoming A News Cafe staff photojournalist Patricia Graves as she presents photographs from her first assignment, the “Stop the Mandates Rally” at Mercy Medical Center in Redding. This is a collaborative piece: I provided the text, and Patricia provided the images. — Doni Chamberlain
Monday afternoon hundreds of people converged upon the intersection outside Mercy Medical Center in Redding’s triple-digit heat to voice their disapproval of a recent state-mandated vaccine requirement for healthcare workers.
The rally was attended by people of all ages, from senior citizens sitting in lawn chairs in the shade, to a father with an infant in a front pack. The multitudes represented a cross section of healthcare occupations, joined by their family, friends and supporters.
The rally offered viewpoints on other topics, such as masks. One little boy held a sign while perched upon the shoulders of a man with a beard, sunglasses and a baseball cap.
“I don’t co-parent with the government,” said the boy’s sign. “Unmask your kids.”
The majority of protesters were women, many of whom wore scrubs.
The vaccine order that went into effect Thursday instigated protests throughout California, similar to Redding’s. California Gov. Gavin Newsome tweeted the news on Aug. 5, including the deadline, that healthcare workers have until Sept. 30 to comply.
The mandate is in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases, and a marked increase in people — especially the unvaccinated – infected and hospitalized with the more deadly, aggressive Delta variant. The mandate focuses on paid and unpaid healthcare providers who work everywhere from dialysis centers, nursing homes, clinics and doctor’s offices to hospitals, mental health facilities, and substance abuse facilities, to name some examples of fields that will be impacted.
The Redding rally crowd cheered and chanted.
“Free choice, free choice, free choice!”
At the rally’s start time of 4:30 p.m. there were approximately 250 protesters. As the hour wore on, the attendance numbers swelled by several hundreds more. People surrounded the intersection. They covered the sidewalks.
People stood on the grassy areas outside nearby doctor’s offices.
Cars were parked along both sides of Airpark Drive to CHP Northern Division Headquarters on Sonoma Avenue near the Benton Municipal Airport.
Many people wore T-shirts adorned with company logos, and clothing and signs that displayed a variety of messages.
Many signs demanded freedom to choose the vaccine or not, but of the dozens of people who agreed to answer questions, not one said they’d ever agree to the vaccine.
There were many reasons given for rejecting the vaccine, and among those reasons, there were consistent responses:
The vaccine is an experiment.
The government wants to control people’s bodies.
The vaccine will make women sterile, or cause them to miscarry.
Healthcare workers are generally healthy and probably won’t get sick, and if they do, they’ll get a mild COVID case.
They most likely already had the virus back in 2019, so they have immunities.
The No. 1 reason for not getting vaccinated: They don’t want the government telling them what to do.
One woman, 42-year-old Janna Mu, who said she is a medical assistant for a family practice office, said the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is ignoring people like her who have natural immunities following a bout with COVID-19.
“People with natural immunities shouldn’t be looked at the same as the unvaccinated,” she said.
Mu added that she’d read some studies that reported that people who’ve already had COVID-19 will have protection for anywhere between a year to possibly even a lifetime of immunity, because of the coronavirus antibodies. She’s not worried.
One man, who only offered his first name — Richard — was there, standing up the sidewalk above the intersection. Richard said he was mainly there in support of his wife, who’s an RN. He shook his head and smiled in awe as he surveyed the noisy throng of people below him. He wore a straw hat and scrubs; royal blue pants and a matching royal blue shirt with an Institute of Technology logo on the front. Richard said he’s taken out student loans on his quest to become a Level 2 LVN, something he now wonders about. In light of the state mandates, he worries if he chose the wrong career.
Richard’s theory is that if people take care of themselves, they won’t become infected with COVID-19 in the first place. Besides, he’s convinced the coronavirus already ravaged Shasta County in the fall and winter of 2019, and if that’s true, then we probably all have herd immunity anyway. He sees the vaccine mandates as part of a conspiracy that only benefits the country’s uber wealthy. He said if the government was truly concerned about citizens’ well-being, they’d take other, more effective measures.
“They could make chemo free and diabetes medications free and universal healthcare for everyone,” he said. “They could outlaw fast food and make healthy food available for everyone.”
He was dubious about the vaccine’s efficacy.
“If you can still get sick after you’ve had the vaccine, and if you can still spread it to other people, then what’s the point of the vaccine?”
And that’s the main reason why Richard said he will refuse the vaccine.
Richard had lots of company Monday. Some carried signs that encouraged vehicles to honk in support, and the crowd yelled in appreciative response with each laying on of the horn and every revved engine, whether from a car, pickup or even a few motorcycles.
“Our Bodies, Our Choice, not Newsom’s not Administrators,” said one sign.
“Free 2 Choose,” proclaimed another.
To the delight of the protesters, a Dignity Health ambulance flashed its lights and engaged its siren as it passed the crowd and headed away from the hospital. Later, a red hospital helicopter lifted from atop Mercy Medical Center and then swooped down close enough that one crew member could be seen in the helicopter, waving and smiling.
A few trucks with American flags and Trump 2024 flags roared up the hill and back down again.
One man held a massive sign with the word “Abortion” alongside a giant photo of a mutilated fetus above the message, “Jesus saves”.
A handful of counter protestors participated in the rally. One man’s sign said, “Get vaxxed,” while his companion’s said, “Vax yourself!”
A Subaru station wagon elicited hearty, prolonged boos from the crowd as the car drove slowly in front of the protesters, displaying pro-vaccine messages on the vehicle’s windows, and a variety of bumper stickers, including one for Black Lives Matter.
Some protesters answered questions when asked, though many wouldn’t disclose their names.
One woman, who sat a folding chair in the shade, is retired from Shasta Regional Medical Center after working there as a registered nurse for more than 30 years. She wasn’t happy at her former employer’s flu-shot requirement, and she was glad to not be faced with the current vaccine mandate.
“And that was in 2014,” she said. “Look where we are now!”
A 63-year-old woman who watched the activity from beneath a leafy tree said that while she wasn’t a healthcare worker, she believed in people’s rights to choose whether to be vaccinated or not.
“I’m here because I think that anything to do with medical decisions should be a personal choice,” she said.
The rally served as an opportunity for non-medical political agendas, too. A man named Tyler, who declined to give his last name, worked the crowd with a clipboard as he gathered petition signatures for the recall of Shasta County supervisors Joe Chimenti, Leonard Moty and Mary Rickert.
“This is what we’re trying to prevent in Shasta County!” he told a group of people on the lawn. “I don’t think there should be forced vaccines. Those supervisors voted for the mandated flu shot.”
A woman in blue scrubs roamed through the crowds as she shouted out information like a circus barker about an upcoming rally in Sacramento. She stopped periodically so people could take photos of her flier.
About an hour into the rally, a man wearing slacks and a dress shirt walked rapidly up the hill, eyes downcast, head lowered, as if entering a wind tunnel. It was A News Cafe’s lucky day, because the man’s name badge said “Kenneth Luke” followed by the word, “leadership”.
When asked if he could answer a few media questions, he responded, “no” without slowing down or looking up.
A quick online search showed that Kenneth Luke is in fact director for Mercy Medical Center’s security and emergency management, seemingly the ideal person to interview that Monday afternoon in the midst of all that chaos.
Oh well. C’est la vie
Richard, the LVN-in-training, laughed.
“Oh honey, none of Mercy’s top people will talk with you.”
Meanwhile, as Richard continued to chat, rising voices could be heard across the street, shouting something about Doni Chamberlain and fake news and the Redding National Enquirer. The source was Red, White and Blueprint cheerleader Kathy Stainbrook, keeping it classy, as always.
Stainbrook was just one of several RW&B and recall supporters present at Monday’s rally, capitalizing on healthcare workers’ concerns about state-mandated vaccines; a subject fraught with serious questions:
What options do healthcare workers have if they truly do mistrust and fear the vaccine, but they also fear losing their jobs?
Do they choose one of two lies: claim a non-existent medical condition, or claim they are members of some religious sect that prohibits vaccinations, either of which could be their ticket to an exemption?
And if they do get away with the lies — for the sake of keeping their jobs — do they also lie to patients who ask if they’re vaccinated? “Pardon me, but could I please have a vaccinated nurse?”
Are they prepared to be wrong about the virus, and face the possibility that their refusal to become vaccinated could put themselves, their loved ones and vulnerable patients at risk for COVID infection or even death?
Are these workers aware of Shasta County’s rising COVID cases, such as the fact that August averaged 40 new COVID cases per day, compared to just four last month? According to Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency, there were 73 new cases on Monday. (Aug. 11 update: 96 new cases, and 36 hospitalized.)
Are they alarmed to realize that Shasta County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in California?
Do they believe scientists’ warnings about the delta variant, that it’s swift and it’s deadly? Or do they think it’s a hoax, too? Do they see Shasta County’s data that proves that the unvaccinated have the highest percentage of people who test positive, are hospitalized and who die?
Do they ponder why such a high percentage of the hospital’s physicians have been vaccinated, and why so many of the physician’s subordinate colleagues have not?
So many earnest questions, none of which were addressed by those with politicized agendas unrelated to public health, like the recallers, or the RW&B people, or the State of Jefferson folks, or the Trump-2024 believers.
Not a word of correction was heard to explain that the supervisors did not create the vaccine mandates, but rather, the vaccine order was the governor’s doing. Not a word was uttered to set the record straight that hospitals and healthcare facilities answer to the state, not the county.
What a jubilant gathering of hundreds of likeminded people outside the same facility where the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit had so many COVID-related absences that fragile preemies are at risk for being sent to hospitals miles away.
Maybe the big red helicopter that lifted off over the crowd Monday contained one of those infants, being transported far from that baby’s home town, because it had the poor luck to be born in Shasta County.
Human kindness, anyone?
Doni Chamberlain is an independent online journalist who founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
Patricia Graves is a lifelong Shasta County resident. She started her photography journey in 1981 at the age of 9 when her mother purchased a Canon AE EOS SLR camera. Every chance she could, she photographed the people around her, and any animals that would stay still long enough. Patricia followed her childhood passion for photography by continuing her education in both photojournalism and creative photography. What has been a passionate hobby is now a career. Patricia’s photography goals are simple: To tell the truth with honest images and to share that truth through her photos.