Why these Oregonians are willing to lose their jobs by refusing COVID-19 vaccines – OregonLive

A nurse preps a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine to be administered in Portland.Brooke Herbert/The Oregonian
They are state troopers, nurses, doctors, school bus drivers, teachers, high-school football coaches and yes — according to state records — even employees at the Oregon Health Authority, the agency tasked with fighting the pandemic.
The one thing all have in common? They are opposed to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, despite an approaching deadline Monday requiring hundreds of thousands of state executive branch employees, healthcare workers and K-12 educators be fully inoculated.
These holdouts comprise an unknown but likely small portion of the roughly 800,000 adults statewide who have yet to get a least one shot.
In announcing her mandates in August, Gov. Kate Brown reiterated what top public health experts in Oregon and nationwide have said: Vaccinations are safe and highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and death.
“The only way we can stop the spread of COVID-19 for good is through vaccination,” she said.
Some against the vaccine mandate have received religious or medical exceptions. But others are at risk of losing their jobs or have already left them.
The Oregonian/OregonLive interviewed three such workers. Here are their stories.
‘Feels like communism’
Lyubov Orlov-Ganchenko, a dental hygienist of 17 years, was “surprised and appalled” when Brown announced the vaccination mandate.
So the Salem resident said she quit her $80,000-a-year job, sold her house and left with her husband, who also was subject to the mandate as a maintenance worker at a medical clinic.
They’ve spent the past two weeks driving to Florida, where they’re now living in their newly purchased motorhome to save money because they both are unemployed.
She said the idea of government telling her what to do reminds her of why, when she was 18, she and her family immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union.
“It feels like communism here,” said Orlov-Ganchenko, 48. “Like I don’t have a choice. Everything is pushed on me. It has brought back PTSD.”
Move across country.
Orlov-Ganchenko said she now plans to work in a different profession — one that likely pays far less – because her Oregon hygienist license isn’t good in Florida and she doesn’t want to re-enroll in classes and take her board exams again.
The couple picked Florida, she said, because her husband’s cousin lives there. But she also said they were keenly aware of Florida’s less intrusive, more hands-off approach to the pandemic. Gov. Ron DeSantis has very vocally rejected vaccine passports, mask mandates, lockdowns and most recently vaccine mandates announced by President Biden.
“I thought, ‘We’re going to go somewhere where we have freedom,’” Orlov-Ganchenko said.
The move has meant leaving behind their two grown daughters, ages 23 and 24. One lives in Seattle and the other lived with Orlov-Ganchenko but is now couch-surfing, day to day, with relatives and friends, she said.
Orlov-Ganchenko acknowledges she could have stayed in Oregon and tried to keep her job by seeking an exception to the mandate. But Orlov-Ganchenko said she wasn’t willing to lie by claiming vaccination is against her religion. And she doubted she’d qualify for a medical exemption.
Although the mRNA technology used to develop the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines is decades old, Orlov-Ganchenko said she’s uncomfortable that it’s been just over 18 months since the first COVID-19 vaccine dose was administered to the first trial recipients. Public health officials counter that 850 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been administered in the U.S. and Europe alone, overwhelmingly with few side effects.
Lyubov Orlov-Ganchenko, a dental hygienist, said she needs to find a new job in her new home state of Florida.
Orlov-Ganchenko also questions the vaccines’ effectiveness, noting they don’t stop everyone from getting infected. In Oregon, between 20% to 27% of recently identified cases have been among the vaccinated. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to studies showing the fully vaccinated are eight times less likely to be infected and 25 times less likely to be hospitalized or die because of the disease.
Orlov-Ganchenko, who said she has asthma and an autoimmune condition, wants more time to pass to prove the vaccines’ safety over time. She said she’s allergic to 32 things – and once developed breathing problems after a flu shot – and doesn’t think public health officials have been forthcoming about the extent of side effects and deaths.
“I always tell people I’d rather go down with COVID than the vaccine,” she said. “I realize I could die from COVID, but I would rather have things take their natural course.”
‘Kick in the face’
The frustration in Jay Hicks’ voice is obvious.
He believes the development of the COVID-19 vaccines was rushed and he’s opposed to Brown’s mandate that he must be fully inoculated as a correctional officer at the Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon. All of the state’s 4,500 prison employees fall under the requirement.
Hicks, an employee of 23 years, is scheduled to work Tuesday, the first day the mandate takes effect, but is still waiting to hear back from the Oregon Department of Corrections about whether he should report for duty.
“I give 23 years of my life and now it’s, ‘Bye?’ And now I’m nothing?” said Hicks, 54. “That hurts.”
He’s now hoping a just-filed religious exception is approved. He declined to share specifics of his religious objection with The Oregonian/OregonLive.
COVID-19 has struck prisons across the country especially hard. In Oregon, 44 inmates and three employees have died, according to an online dashboard. More than one out of four inmates and staff are known to have been infected, more than triple the rate among Oregonians in general. Hicks is one of them, but his application for a medical exemption was denied.
“I got COVID because of my job,” Hicks said. “And now I have antibodies and I’m the best for my job and I get punished?”
All Oregon Department of Corrections employees must get vaccinated. (Beth Nakamura / File photo / Two Rivers Correctional Institution)LC- The Oregonian
The reality of whether natural immunity from infection gives a person adequate protection against reinfection is still very much up for discussion in the scientific world. Hicks is one of six plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed last month by Oregon workers who’ve all previously been infected with COVID-19 and argue they shouldn’t be subject to the governor’s vaccination mandate.
An Israeli study conducted when the delta variant was dominant this past summer appeared to show that natural immunity might provide better protection than full vaccination with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. But public health officials point to some research that shows immunity from natural infection can vary significantly from person to person and it drops dramatically six months to one year after infection.
If Hicks is fired, he said he’s not sure what he’ll do for a living. He resides in Vale, a town of about 2,000 near Ontario, with few job prospects. Hicks said maybe he’ll try to get hired by the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, which doesn’t fall under the state’s vaccination mandate.
But standing up against the requirement, he said, is about his freedom to make personal medical decisions.
“It’s just a kick in the face,” Hicks said. “But hey, I’m tough. …This is much bigger than my job.”
Vaccines feel like ‘hocus pocus’
Kathleen Sanders, a pharmacist of over 25 years, has two hurdles before her.
She doesn’t want the vaccine for herself. And she won’t administer shots to others.
Both mean she’s effectively out of a job.
The Hood River Walmart put her on unpaid leave in April, she said, when she wouldn’t inoculate customers. She believes the vaccines were developed too quickly and the government isn’t being forthcoming about the true number of side effects.
“To me, to simply believe that ‘hocus pocus,’ wave the magic wand and it works … it’s a huge red flag as a professional,” said Sanders, 50.
Sanders said she has natural immunity from a previous infection. But she said she also objects because the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were tested on a fetal cell line and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was produced using an adenovirus grown using cells traced back to a fetus. None of the vaccines contain fetal cells.
Sanders is Catholic, and even though the Vatican has said it’s “morally acceptable” to get the vaccines, she personally doesn’t agree.
Opposes COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
Six months into her unpaid leave, Sanders, a fifth generation Hood River resident, is actively looking for online work as a pharmacist. She would much rather work face-to-face with patients and oversee the staff of six pharmacy employees that she used to, she said.
She also is talking to her financial adviser about the possibility of dipping into the retirement savings to make ends meet.
“I went to school for a long time,” said Sanders, who is part of a different lawsuit challenging Oregon’s vaccination requirements. “I love my patients. I love my staff.”
Living in a county where 76% of adults are fully vaccinated, the second-highest rate in the state, Sanders said she’s heard from friends or acquaintances who disagree with her decision against vaccination.
“I’m on the borderline of being bullied,” she said.
Whether people agree with her and other health care workers who’ve worked the frontlines of the pandemic but won’t get vaccinated, she asked that they not be so judgmental.
“I was a 2020 hero because I showed up to work each day,” Sanders said. “And what, now it’s 2021 and I’m kicked to the curb? That’s honestly how I feel.”
— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee
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