‘Walked out with my head held high’: Religious exemptions end for health care vaccine mandate

Monroe County

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Once the clock struck midnight Monday, health care workers could no longer cite a religious exemption for the COVID vaccine. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a week before the deadline that all health care workers seeking the exemption must have a first vaccine dose by Monday morning or risk job loss.

What changed since a judge ruled that not honoring religious exemptions was unconstitutional in October? “The Utica judge said, ‘While we await a full hearing on the merits, we are not going to allow the state to refuse to allow the religious exemptions,'” said Steve Modica, a New York employment lawyer. He said there has yet to be a full hearing on the lawfulness of religious exemptions, and that the back-and-forth between courts is over immediate relief until a full hearing.

Fast forward a few weeks, and another federal judge in New York overrules the hearing. “That decision went to an appeals court called United States Appeals Court of the Second Circuit, and they ruled that until there could be a full discussion on the merits, they would allow the state to continue to prohibit religious exemptions,” Modica said.

Modica said reluctant workers still have a few options: Get the vaccine or see what accommodations your employer might offer, like working remotely. But for Krista Michael at Rochester Regional Health, the decision was already made months ago.

“I worked my last shift on Friday and I walked out with my head held high. I’m not defeated. This isn’t over. My life isn’t over,” Michael said. “A chapter has come to a close, but a new one’s about to open.”

Michael said her bosses walked her into their office a day after the announcement. “They wanted to offer one last time, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t reconsider taking it so you don’t have to leave?’ and I said ‘No, my decision is made, so tell me what you need to tell me.'”

According to Michael, it wasn’t a matter of resigning. It was a matter of getting fired. “I worked the rest of the week,” Michael said. “I said I would from the beginning, that I would work with all my heart, soul and strength until my time was up.”

Michael said she has a few irons in the fire for what could be next, but that she plans to remain a nurse in a health care setting. She said her reason for not getting vaccinated has a lot to do with personal choice and the commitment to her beliefs. “I’ve made a decision—decided what I will do, what I won’t do,” Michael said. “That’s who I am and I’m standing by it.”

Epidemiologists who study the data say that vaccines are safe and dramatically reduce the risk of severe symptoms from COVID. Despite their assurance, Michael said her mind is made up and she’s not alone. “I have other friends who may be an MRI technician, that’s the only skill, and if she can’t work in the health care setting as an MRI technologist, she’s gonna work at the post office,” Michael said. “It’s a waste of a health care professional.”

The litigation process is slow, and Modica said it could be months before a decision is made if the issues goes to the Supreme Court. “Certainly, the court—as a result of recent appointments—appears to be leaning in more of a conservative fashion,” Modica said. “You might expect that they might take a harder look at this than previous courts might.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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