More than 150 people took to the sides of Highway 410 Wednesday evening in Buckley to protest recent vaccine mandates for state and healthcare workers in a “Rally for Medical Freedom.”
Amid honking cars and waves of support, protestors held signs reading “Vax Me If You Can” and “My Body My Choice.” They expressed a variety of opinions on the vaccine itself, but most agreed on one thing: It shouldn’t be mandated.
Hannah Kilcup, who organized the event, was already planning to protest Washington’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates when, hours before the rally began, the stakes became personal.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who a week earlier mandated vaccinations for most state employees and healthcare workers by Oct. 18, extended that requirement on Wednesday to teachers and staff, such as bus drivers and coaches, in K-12 and higher education, as well as many childcare providers. He’d been urged to do so a week before by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) head Chris Reykdal.
Kilcup, a library media teacher with the Enumclaw School District who lives in Buckley, is included under that mandate.
“I wasn’t surprised, and I’m not scared,” Kilcup said Wednesday. “I’ve been preparing for this. … I don’t want to speak for everybody, but I know that I don’t feel respected or valued by (Inslee) or (Reykdal) when we’re not allowed the choice. When I agreed to this job, that wasn’t part of the qualifications.”
In addition to expanding the vaccine mandate, Inslee on Aug. 18 reinstated an indoor mask mandate to everyone regardless of vaccination status. That mandate, which has a few exemptions for office spaces and private gatherings, kicks in Monday, Aug. 23.
According to the Seattle Times, Inslee’s vaccine mandate is now “likely the strictest in the nation.”
Inslee’s announcement comes on the heels of a sharp surge in COVID-19 cases. State officials now say there are more active COVID-19 cases and people hospitalized with the virus than at any time during the pandemic so far. The rate of deaths remains comparatively flat, according to the state Department of Health, varying from an average of 5 to 10 deaths per day since March 23.
The upswing is primarily due to the highly-contagious Delta variant of the virus, which State Health Secretary Umair Shah said now represents about 98 percent of cases in the state. While the vaccinated are well-protected against the Delta variant, they can spread it more easily than previous versions of the virus.
Around 63 percent of those eligible in Washington State (12 years of age or older) are fully vaccinated, but vaccination rates have slowed significantly since May.
Many at the rally questioned the safety of the vaccines, which have received Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA but are still awaiting full approval. Getting vaccinated greatly reduces your chance of serious illness, hospitalization and death from contracting COVID-19, as well as getting it at all, the state Department of Health says.
“COVID can have very severe consequences,” DOH deputy secretary of COVID response Lacy Fehrenbach said. “(And) the vaccine safety process and review was not in any way curtailed. … They were very carefully reviewed by the FDA and CDC before being recommended for use. And since we started using them in December, there have been about 350 million (administered) nationwide … with very, very few significant safety events or long term side effects.”
Leandra Usborne is vaccinated, but her husband Scott is not. One of their children who has immune system concerns also received the shot, but their two other boys haven’t. For the Enumclaw family, it comes down to choice.
“We’re concerned about the heart inflammation that we’ve seen in some reports,” Leandre Usborne said of those two. “So half of us got it, half of us didn’t, and we really want that choice for every family.”
As of Aug. 11, the CDC’s adverse reporting system has received about 1,300 reports of heart inflammation among vaccinated people ages 30 and younger, mostly among young men 16 years or older. The CDC has confirmed about 760 of those cases and is still investigating whether they’re related to the vaccine. Still, the CDC notes that COVID-19 can cause heart damage, too, and says the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.
“I’m here to support everybody’s medical choice,” Leandre Usborne said at the rally, holding a sign reading ‘MEDICAL FREEDOM.’ “I think it’s super important for every family and every individual to make that choice for themselves. … There are people with vaccines out here. It’s not an anti-vaccine thing, necessarily.”
Leandre Usborne, a structural integrator, said she took the vaccine primarily to avoid having to close her business due to COVID exposure from the public. She would have liked more time to consider getting the vaccine had she not worked in healthcare, she said, but “(she’s) not anti-vaccine.” (She said she was vaccinated prior to it being mandated for her industry.)
Meanwhile, Scott Usborne, an English teacher at the Auburn School District and local Water Polo coach, is not vaccinated. He avoids putting just about any kind of medicine in his body – even aspirin – and that attitude is part of his belief system. But it doesn’t fall neatly under a church doctrine.
“I don’t have a denomination, but I do consider it a religious belief,” he said. “So I’m going to try to get the religious exemption.”
If that fails, Usborne will have a choice to make: Get the vaccine, or refuse and face losing his income and the family’s health insurance.
Inslee’s mandates carry two exemptions for “legitimate medical” and “sincerely held religious” reasons, and the language of both are sure to be tested.
“Riddle me this,” Q13 Fox’s Brandi Kruse Kruse asked Reykdal on Thursday: “How is the state going to determine whether someone’s religious beliefs are sincerely held?”
“We are going to be relying on them to be forthright about that,” Reykdal said. “Folks, I think, will do it with great integrity.”
Pressed by Kruse for more specifics, Reykdal said: “It’s called a religious exemption, but it has this ability for folks to value this decision not necessarily based on a religious affiliation. … It has the ability for people to say, ‘I just don’t do vaccines,’ and we’re going to honor that. … They do have to walk right up to that line and say, ‘Am I not going to get this, despite the science, because of this deep conviction I have?’ And if that’s their answer, then that’s OK. I think it’s going to have tens of thousands of folks say, I need to finally get this shot. It’s safe and it’s the right thing to do for kids in my community and fellow educators.”
Reykdal said the State is still working out the specifics of the language with the Attorney General’s office.
Brian Paterik, a 24-year firefighter at the Seattle Fire Department who lives in Buckley, was already at an age where he could retire. He’d like to keep working, but at 63 years old, “I don’t have as much to risk,” he said, and if Oct. 18 is his last day for refusing the vaccine, then so be it.
But a firefighting job at the department is hard to come by, he said, and he feels for the younger members with families who could lose their careers.
“A few months ago, we were frontline heroes,” Paterik said. “Now, they’re willing to just put us out on the street.”
“My first reaction was extreme anxiety” when he heard about the mandates, Paterik said. “Our family has experienced job losses and threats because of the lockdowns initially. My children are business owners. So the whole family’s been through a lot of stress, financially.”
He said he’d take regular COVID testing in place of the vaccine if it were offered, as “a lesser of two evils.”
Paterik estimated that about 40 percent of people at the fire department are likely not vaccinated. If enough of them refuse to buckle before Oct. 18, he said, they might change the department’s mind about losing “a quarter of the department on a single day.”
Steve McCoy, from Bonney Lake, held a sign reading “My Body, My Choice” – a slogan that rose to popularity initially in the feminist and abortion rights movements. Recently, the slogan has been re-imagined by those against COVID-19 vaccine or mask requirements.
“(I’ve been) trying to encourage folks, like I’m doing here to say, this is a violation of my personal rights,” he said, citing Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote about those who would give up liberty for temporary safety.
As to the argument that vaccinations are about protecting each other, McCoy said: “When, in the history of our country, has it been the responsibility of healthy people to mask up and get vaccines to protect sick people?”
“(When) has any country that’s forced anything on its citizens been on the good side of history?” Steve’s brother Kevin McCoy added.
Call them counter-protestors, or just folks with a different interpretation: Two women from Buckley who gave first names of Susan and Kay said they both support the vaccine and the mandates. They held signs reading “Support Medical Science, Get Vaccinated” and “Support Medical Freedom, Support Planned Parenthood.”
“It is a tough choice, and if my livelihood was on the line, I would talk to somebody, possibly my doctor, and ask them to tell me: ‘What is wrong with the vaccine? ‘Why shouldn’t I take the vaccine?’ ” Kay said. “And then I would take a medically informed decision to take the vaccine, because I want to keep my job.”
To some at the rally, the vaccine mandates were only the latest symptom of broader government corruption. Ryan Lundeen, president of Enumclaw’s Stanley Patrick Striping Company, called them “tyranny.”
“I think forcing people to take non-FDA approved vaccines … it’s just not right,” Lundeen said. “It goes against the Constitution, against everything we believe in as Americans.”
He said he doesn’t ask his employees or friends if they’re vaccinated – “It’s none of my business, and it’s none of yours if I’ve been vaccinated” – and said normalizing those questions leads to a “slippery slope.”
Lundeen said that officials are lying about hospitalization numbers and the origin of the virus, and that reconciliation will take “the truth coming out” about those and other issues the U.S. faces.
While she welcomed the diversity of opinions, the rally’s purpose wasn’t against vaccines or masks, nor about Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Kilcup said. She said she wanted to host the rally so that those struggling with the mandate to receive the vaccine didn’t feel alone.
“I just don’t agree with forcing things upon people, especially when it involves your body,” said Kilcup. “I don’t think the government should be involved in that. I knew it would come down to a time where people have to make hard choices. … I believe that I should be able to make choices for myself and my family. I’m a single mom of three kids, so that makes it harder when it comes to making these choices.”
Kilcup rated the rally a success Wednesday: “People have been kind, and feeling like they’ve been heard.”
For Kilcup, like many at the rally, what happens on Oct. 18 will be up to her bosses and state officials.