For vaccine holdouts, an uncertain future awaits

LIMA — Tyler McComb was days away from starting a new job when he learned federal employees and contractors like himself would soon need to show proof of vaccination or risk termination.

McComb, 26, had just quit another job with a medical equipment management firm days earlier to avoid that company’s vaccination policy. He reasoned that litigating his opinion on the coronavirus vaccines with human resources, which would ultimately decide whose medical and religious exemptions would be granted, was not worth his time.

But now McComb, who moved back to Lima with his wife, Jennifer, and two children in April, was set to start a new job with the same uncertainty he experienced before: Get the jab or find another job?

“We don’t really know what we’re going to do,” McComb said. “We’re hoping by that point that the (Biden) administration realizes what they’re doing is ruining lives, essentially, because we’re not the only ones in this boat.”

Few alternatives for holdouts

One-third of unvaccinated workers surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation in September reported that they were likely to be vaccinated if required to do so by an employer. But when given the choice of weekly testing, the survey found that only 12% said they would still prefer a shot and another 30% said they would leave their jobs.

But the Biden administration has announced a slew of vaccine mandates covering health care facilities, active-duty troops, federal employees and contractors working with the federal government. The administration is also working on a rule through OSHA to require vaccines or weekly testing for private employers with at least 100 workers, limiting the options for those who intend to quit their jobs.

The mandates have drawn ire from groups like the Lima Community for Medical Freedom, which has attracted more than 5,200 followers seeking tips on how to apply for exemptions or to express their support for legislation prohibiting employers from asking about vaccination status.

Still, interest in vaccines is also growing: Allen County saw its largest single-day vaccinations since April after Allen County Public Health offered pop-up clinics in Robb Park and Heritage Elementary School in September. Some 40% of Allen County residents are now partially or fully vaccinated after months of stagnant interest, according to Ohio Department of Health data.

Legal challenges anticipated

Companies can impose immunization requirements so long as they offer accommodations for those with religious objections or medical complications, but the burden is on workers to prove a sincerely held religious belief or medical condition that prevents them from being vaccinated, said Dallan Flake, a law professor specializing in employment law for Ohio Northern University’s College of Law.

Even when a worker can prove his or her case, Flake said, the exemption may be denied because “employers have a strong argument that having an unvaccinated employee would be unduly burdensome because it increases the risk of infection of that employee and others having to quarantine and be away from work.”

While the Biden administration likely has the authority to require vaccines for federal employees, government contractors and health care workers working in facilities that receive Medicaid or Medicare funding, Flake said, its authority to impose similar rules in private workplaces is less certain.

“The debate is: Are vaccines just another workplace safety precaution like goggles or scaffolding?” Flake said. “Or is there something inherently different about vaccines that would not give the president the authority to mandate that through executive order?”

Ohio lawmakers on Tuesday responded by introducing legislation that, if approved, would allow workers and students to claim conscience objections or show proof that they already have antibodies protecting them from future infections to get out of vaccine requirements.

But even if it were to become law, the protections would conflict with federal law and workers would likely have to submit to weekly testing so employers could comply with both state and federal law.

An uncertain future

The McCombs aren’t sure what the future holds, but the one thing they are certain of is their discomfort with mandatory vaccinations: For Jennifer, refusing a vaccine could mean separating from the military early after 11 years.

For Tyler, the cost could be yet another job.

But the more vaccinations are pushed, either through workplace mandates or incentives, the more skeptical the McCombs become.

“If I get COVID I’m going to be fine,” Jennifer McComb said. “So, who are you to tell me? The president shouldn’t have the power to give any medical advice. This is my body. I should be able to do what I want.”

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Tyler and Jennifer McComb answer questions at their home in Lima. They are weighing their options as vaccine mandates for federal workers, contractors, health care workers and others start to take effect. and Jennifer McComb answer questions at their home in Lima. They are weighing their options as vaccine mandates for federal workers, contractors, health care workers and others start to take effect.

By Mackenzi Klemann

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