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Protesters cause a stir over Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s COVID vaccine mandate for employees

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    After completing her last of four 12-hour overnight shifts for the week as an LNA at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Nicole Lheureux, left, joined her husband David, of Alexandria, N.H., along the main commuting route to the hospital in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, to protest the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health requirement for employees to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30. "Covid destroyed our business," said Lheureux, of the personal training gym they ran from home until lockdowns began in 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

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    "I do have a choice," shouts a passerby as David Lheureux, of Alexandria, N.H., listens in Lebanon, N.H., on Wednesday, August 13, 2021, while protesting the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health requirement for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30. "You don't have polio. You don't have measles," the man yelled, referring to infectious diseases effectively eradicated in the United States through vaccination. Lheureux began protesting at the intersection along the main commuting route to the hospital on Saturday, August 7, and has spent several days and nights on the corner. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • David Lheureux kisses his wife Nicole's pregnant belly before leaving the site of a protest against the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health vaccination mandate in Lebanon, N.H. for a short break on Wednesday, August 13, 2021, after spending several days and nights there. The couple began protesting mask mandates last summer, and David Lheureux said that while receiving prenatal care from a different health care provider, Nicole was denied an ultrasound because they both refused to wear masks during the appointment. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2021 9:50:56 PM
Modified: 8/15/2021 6:53:07 AM

LEBANON — Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is situated along the town line between Lebanon and Hanover, two communities with among the highest vaccination rates in New Hampshire, a state with one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, that sits snugly in the country’s most vaccinated region.

The area would seem to be an unlikely location for a COVID-19 vaccination protest. At least until about a week ago.

Last Saturday was the first day passing motorists would see the hand-painted placard reading “SueDHMC.com, No Forced Vax” propped up against a military-style truck adorned with American flags parked at the intersection of Lahaye Drive and Route 120, across the street from the entrance to the DHMC campus.

The vehicle belongs to Alexandria, N.H., resident David Lheureux, whose wife, Nicole, is a licensed nursing assistant at DHMC. The truck remained parked on the corner throughout last week to protest Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health system’s requirement that its 13,000 employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30.

“We’re not anti-vaccine,” said Lheureux, who had a folding chair set up under a tent next to his truck in Wednesday’s sweltering heat.

Instead, Lheureux said, he and other family members of employees, some employees themselves and other supporters are “anti-mandate.” He noted that as many as 50 people have joined him on the corner at times. He said he was there to be a voice for workers who fear losing their jobs and also feel uncertain about getting the shots.

As Lheureux spoke, some passing cars honked, seemingly in support of his cause.

Meanwhile, a passing motorist in a white Subaru yelled out their window, “Thank you, D-H. Everybody should get shots,” before turning down Lahaye Drive toward the medical center.

About 80% of D-HH’s statewide workforce were vaccinated before the mandate announcement, officials for the Lebanon-based health system said.

The mandate applies to employees of DHMC, as well as those at Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, New London Hospital, Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire and 24 D-H clinics in the two states.

“Getting as many people vaccinated as possible is critical to overcoming this ongoing public health crisis,” Audra Burns, a D-HH spokeswoman, said when asked about the protest. “As New Hampshire’s largest provider of health care and the state’s largest private employer, we must lead by example in the arena of public health.”

D-HH employees who haven’t yet been vaccinated are encouraged to speak with their health care provider about the benefits of vaccination as well as their concerns, Burns said. They may also apply for medical and religious exemptions.

In the news release announcing the mandate, D-HH said that “data and science clearly support the benefits of vaccination” and also noted that outbreaks are occurring — primarily among the unvaccinated — because of the highly contagious delta variant.

Free choice vs. collective responsibility

Lheureux, who owned and operated a personal training and fitness business before the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to close, said he’s concerned about the “trickle-down” effect of D-HH’s vaccine mandate.

Lheureux said his wife, who is pregnant, is one year away from becoming a registered nurse and hopes to continue working at DHMC.

The mandate, which he called “anti-American,” “does directly affect my family,” he said.

Should the D-HH mandate hold, Lheureux said he’s concerned that similar mandates will go into place at the state’s nursing homes, urgent care facilities and emergency medical services.

Many have. The New Hampshire Hospital Association has endorsed vaccine mandates for all hospital workers statewide. A recently enacted state law, HB 220, that otherwise prevents public entities from requiring vaccines left room for the state to require vaccines for those who work in health care settings such as the state hospital or Glencliff Home for the Elderly.

As Lheureux spoke to a reporter on Wednesday, a woman wearing a face mask approached his tent and said she cares for a brother with cancer.

“I don’t want him to die,” she said, indicating that she feels it is a communal responsibility to protect vulnerable people like her brother, who may be more likely to develop serious symptoms should he get COVID-19.

At about the same time, a DHMC employee, who asked not to be named for fear of losing her job, also joined Lheureux under the tent.

“I don’t agree that people should be forced to take a vaccine,” she said.

She also said she opposed required testing and felt that the hospital’s current precautions — including masking and hand-washing — ought to be sufficient to prevent the virus’s spread.

The woman said she hadn’t decided whether to apply for an exemption to the mandate or to leave her job.

Legal action possible

The web address SueDHMC.com redirects web browsers to the website of the Liberty Defense Coalition, which is organizing a meeting later this month to discuss a lawsuit against the health system. The group bills itself as a “natural rights advocacy defense” organization. Its founder, Wes Chapmon, a semi-retired public finance investment banker from Bath, N.H., emphasized that the groups coming together to protest the health system’s mandate are nonpartisan.

Chapmon claimed that 30-some activist groups are involved — though he declined to provide a full list. They come from diverse perspectives, he said, but all share an opposition to COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

It’s “time to come together and put away our differences,” Chapmon said of the groups involved with the coalition.

“This is a global fight that affects everyone,” he said.

While Chapmon said the coalition is “not controlling the activists,” there are some ground rules for participants in the in-person protest on Route 120.

He said protesters are asked not to fight or participate in antagonistic behavior and to “come with love in your hearts for your fellow man.” In addition, he said, they are asked to leave firearms at home.

“This is not a 2nd Amendment issue,” he said.

While the group may have set standards for protesters’ behavior, some of the displays have been in poor taste.

On Thursday, the protesters placed posters of Josef Mengele, a notorious World War II-era German Nazi known as the Angel of Death, and Dr. Joanne Conroy, D-HH’s CEO, next to each other in the median near Centerra plaza, according to a photo tweeted by Dr. Meredith MacMartin, director of inpatient palliative care at DHMC.

The text above the photo of Mengele said, “Forced experiments were wrong” and the line above Conroy said, “Forced experiments are still wrong.”

While the in-person protest aims to “make known our grievance,” Chapmon said he hopes that D-HH’s mandate and others like it are stymied by a planned lawsuit, which he said he expects will be brought with the assistance of “consulting attorneys.”

New Hampshire employment attorneys told New Hampshire Bulletin that state law generally is on employers’ side in the case of vaccine mandates, as long as they allow “reasonable” accommodations for certain medical conditions and “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

Under the “emergency use authorization” the Food and Drug Administration has granted to the currently available Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines, recipients are required to be informed that they have a right to accept or refuse the vaccines, but that doesn’t bar employers from firing workers who refuse to get the shots.

Shouts and sobs

The in-person protests, which have included name-calling and insults both lobbed by and directed at the protestors, have upset some DHMC employees, causing them to cry in parking lots and hallways, according to a recent letter to the editor in the Valley News.

The protests also have spurred some calls to the Lebanon Police Department, Deputy Chief Matt Isham said on Thursday.

Some callers have reported protesters being in the roadway, but Isham said officers have not found that to be the case. Another report indicated that protesters’ signs were in the median in violation of a city ordinance. When officers responded to that report, the protesters moved the signs.

“They want to comply,” Isham said.

He said the protesters can stay where they are along the roadside as long as they aren’t violating the noise or other city ordinance.

“This seems to be a hot topic for people,” Isham said. “That’s why they’re up there.”

David Rodrigue, director of operations for New Hampshire Department of Transportation, which is responsible for state roads such as Route 120, said that questions of whether the protesters’ vehicle is parked legally should be left up to local law enforcement.

“If the police are fine with it, (we’re) not going to run out there and force an issue if there’s no safety concern,” Rodrigue said.

But, he said, he didn’t want people to get the message that they should be parking along Route 120.

Motorists along the Route 120 corridor can expect to see protesters for the foreseeable future, or at least until D-HH’s vaccine mandate is rescinded or until it goes into effect, with workers required to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30.

Chapmon said the “goal is to have a presence there until this is done.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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