DuBOIS — “My body, my choice.” “No jabs for jobs.” “Freedom Over Fear,” and “Let Me Call My Own Shots,” were just a few of the sayings written on pieces of poster board held by healthcare workers and community members lining the sidewalks in front of Penn Highlands DuBois Friday afternoon.

The “Medical Freedom of Choice Rally,” a protest against a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate, brought dozens of people out in the cold, all passionate about a common goal.

According to an email distributed Nov. 11 to employees on vaccine updates and exemption procedures, Penn Highlands Healthcare is “complying with the mandate issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,” which is requiring that healthcare workers have the COVID-19 vaccine. The first dose, it says, of a two-dose regimen must be administered by Dec. 5, 2021. Weekly COVID-19 testing is also not an option for PHH employees.

Gary and Karen Donahoe of Rockton said they attended the rally simply to support healthcare workers and freedom of choice.

Debbie Stewart, a nurse of 33 years, became emotional when addressing her longtime career in healthcare. She went on to say how proud she was of those who organized and attended the protest and were taking a stand.

Matilda Illuzzi, whose husband works for Penn Highlands DuBois, said all of these healthcare workers risked their safety, as well as their family’s, to care for others throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These people had to come to work, not knowing if they’d get sick,” she said.

Now, she said, these same workers are being forced to fight for their freedoms.

“Someone has to start standing up for our rights,” she said.

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Illuzzi noted that she is not “anti-vaccine,” but is simply pro freedom of choice.

Along with signs and banners, several protesters also held full-size American flags, and some chanted “Stop the mandate.” Several cars passing on South Main Street showed support by honking their horns.

During Thursday’s media teleconference, Chief Operating Officer Mark Norman said Penn Highlands Healthcare fully intends to comply with this federal mandate in all seven of their hospitals in DuBois, Brookville, Clearfield, St. Marys, Huntingdon, Tyrone and Monongahela, as well as their outpatient facilities, physician offices, home health agencies, and long-term care facilities all across their 39-county service areas.

He said this mandate will affect 5,654 employees, 740 physicians and 374 advanced providers across the PHH system.

It was noted by PHH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Cameron that employees may seek exceptions to the federal mandate based on medical conditions or recognized religious beliefs. All requests for medical or religious exemptions will be reviewed by a designated panel of medical and religious professionals.

In regards to Friday’s protest, Norman said officials understand why this mandate has people “upset and frustrated.”

“We certainly understand that,” he said. “However, Penn Highlands believes in the vaccine and we are encouraging our employees to get the vaccine. If Penn Highlands does not comply with this mandate, our communities stand to lose access to high quality healthcare, because our health system will lose 66 percent of our net revenue, and then a lot of people would lose jobs.

“This would cripple the economies of the communities that we serve, where we have our local hospitals. We are educating our employees through internal communications since this is a federal mandate, which we must follow, and advising employees who may be upset to reach out to their U.S. senators and representatives.”

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