Hundreds of Mainers opposed to the state’s new COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers protested Saturday outside Maine Medical Center in Portland. The protesters, many of whom are health care workers, called for personal choice in medical decisions, with some also spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation about vaccines and COVID-19.

“We are not anti-anything,” organizer Emily Nixon said to the crowd. “We support the right to vaccinate. We support the right to choose.”

Nixon, a home care nurse who wore her MaineHealth ID badge, said she started the group “Mainers for Freedom” before Gov. Janet Mills’ announcement Thursday that all health care workers would be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. According to state data, 80 percent of hospital staff and 73 percent of nursing home staff are fully vaccinated in Maine, and Mills said she hoped to achieve full immunization by October.

“With this requirement, we are protecting our health care workers, we are protecting their patients, including our most vulnerable people, and we are protecting our health care capacity,” Mills said in a virtual news conference.

Nixon and the approximately 300 people with her on the Western Promenade thought differently. In her remarks Saturday, Nixon warned that health care workers like her may quit if forced to choose between their jobs and a COVID-19 shot, leaving the sector understaffed at a critical moment.

“We have all had the opportunity to receive the vaccine, and we have all said ‘no,'” she said to cheers from the crowd.

As the delta variant of COVID-19 sweeps the country and contributes to another surge in cases and hospitalizations, Maine has joined California, New York and Washington state in requiring vaccines for health care workers. The details of each mandate differ, but in Maine, the policy will not include a religious or philosophical exemption, which means workers may opt out only for medical reasons.

Before Mills’ decision, two large Maine hospital networks — MaineHealth and Northern Light Health — had already announced plans to require COVID-19 immunization for staff.

Health care workers in Maine must also receive inoculations against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis B and influenza, but Saturday’s demonstrators said they drew the line at vaccines that haven’t yet received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

“They’re using health care workers as guinea pigs,” said Justin Whynot, a home remodeler from Windham who carried an American flag. He predicted that the next step would be to mandate vaccination for the general public, adding, “They’re going to force the jab on everybody.”

Whynot’s wife, Jennifer, is a substance abuse counselor at Groups Recover Together, a multi-state network of medication-assisted treatment centers for opioid addiction. She, too, fears her employer may require a vaccine.

“Several workers will be leaving the facility,” she said of her workplace. “They won’t be able to run.”

Justin Whynot noted that the vaccines against COVID-19 from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have received emergency use authorization from the FDA, but not yet full approval. But he incorrectly said that the vaccines are unsafe, and instead promoted unproven remedies such as hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug with no COVID-19 benefits touted by former President Donald Trump.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the vaccines are safe and effective against COVID-19. Clinical trials with tens of thousands of human subjects, and millions more shots given to the general public, show that side effects such as swelling at the injection site and fatigue pass without lasting harm.

Rare cases of anaphylaxis (severe allergic reactions) are possible within minutes of injection, which is why health care facilities keep vaccine recipients under observation during that short time. The J&J vaccine also has been associated with rare but serious blood clots, most likely to appear in women under 50 at a rate of seven cases per million.

Long-term side effects are extremely unlikely, the CDC says. Historically, vaccine side effects have tended to appear within six weeks of receiving a dose.

“Your risk for serious health problems is much lower from the vaccine than your risk if you’re unvaccinated and get COVID-19,” Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA, says in a video on the agency’s website. “COVID-19 can leave you with heart and lung damage and other conditions that require long-term treatment. Vaccines are much safer paths to immunity than the disease itself.”

Some protesters appeared not to view the FDA and CDC as trustworthy sources, however.

F. Ron Jenkins, an attorney who practices in Maine, Virginia and Washington, D.C., accused the CDC of reporting “bogus” numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths to “terrorize us.” Speaking to the crowd, he said public health officials are part of a “well-executed authoritarian plan” to spread fear and make money by selling “their precious vaccine.”

His remarks drew roars of approval from the crowd. “The FDA is B.S.!” a woman shouted back, using a stronger expletive.

“We have to remember that the people who aren’t awake out there, out in this state, are our brothers and sisters,” Jenkins said. “There is no amount of data you can show them that will wake them up. What you have to do is show them your own fearlessness.”

The rally also featured numerous attacks on Mills. Handmade signs proclaimed “MILLS SUCKS,” “[EXPLETIVE] YOU JANET,” and “MILLS KNOWS WHERE TO SHOVE THAT JAB.”

Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for the governor, noted on Saturday that the state has long required immunization for health care workers against diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B.

“Vaccinations are safe, effective, and the best tool we have to protect the lives and livelihoods of Maine people and to curb this pandemic,” Crete said in a statement. “Health care workers perform a critical role in protecting the health of Maine people, and it is imperative they take every precaution, particularly in light of the more dangerous and transmissible Delta variant, to not only protect their health but also that of their patients, who include our most vulnerable. Further, the Governor believes that every person in Maine who is placed in the care of a health care facility has the right to expect — as do their families — that they will receive high-quality and safe care, which includes having their care providers be fully vaccinated in order to protect them against this deadly virus as much as possible.”

Nixon, the organizer, mentioned plans to protest elsewhere in Maine, including outside the State House. The group will hold the Augusta rally late Tuesday morning, according to its Instagram page.

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