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HUNTINGTON — As the president on Thursday announced a sweeping vaccine mandate for workers across sectors of American business, a group of Tri-State residents began gathering in front of Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Mountain Health Network announced two weeks ago all employees of Cabell Huntington, St. Mary’s Medical Center and HIMG must get vaccinated. If employees choose to not get vaccinated, they are submitted to surveillance testing one or two times a week.

About 80% of employees were vaccinated prior to Pfizer being FDA approved.

The group that gathered Thursday was not all hospital employees, but it was started by hospital employee Amber Robinson. A clerk for the pathology and psychology departments, Robinson started a Facebook group for dissenting employees to discuss the mandate as they faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace, she said.

Others in the community who do not support vaccine mandates joined the group, and the rally was formed.

“It grew really quickly,” Robinson said. “This is for the community, because any time someone wants to talk about it they are shut down.”

The rally started as support for hospital workers, but President Joe Biden’s announcement solidified what many said: It’s about more than doctors and nurses.

“Everyone should have the freedom of choice,” said retired Charleston nurse Karen Estep.

Biden’s order does not allow federal workers to opt out of getting a vaccine, but all businesses with more than 100 employees must either mandate vaccinations for all their workers or require them to take weekly coronavirus tests.

Robinson said she and others are concerned about the additional testing because of the chemical used to sterilize the tests. She says studies have only researched its impact on humans with testing once a week, not multiple times.

The chemical is ethylene oxide, which is commonly used to sterilize medical equipment in the United States.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration created strict standards for the use of ethylene oxide on medical devices after it was found that the gas could cause cancer with long-term and occupational exposure. In the U.S., health care facilities that use the gas are monitored by state health officials, according to the FDA.

But experts say there is no concern about the gas being left on COVID-19 tests, according to The Associated Press and other media reports.

Protesters on Thursday called for a special session to address these mandates, and Republican lawmakers in attendance agreed.

Del. Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, said he supports medical freedom and wishes the hospital would consider testing for antibodies and natural immunity as an alternative to weekly testing. He said a special session is being demanded by his constituents.

Taylor Stuck is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering state government, health and higher education. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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