Protesters against the health care worker vaccine mandate stood all around the traffic circle on Route 58 in Riverhead near Peconic Bay Medical Center Sept. 4. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Protesters against the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for healthcare workers lined up around the Route 58 traffic circle near Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead today.

About 150 people turned out for the protest, carrying flags and handmade signs decrying “tyranny,” “coercion,” “stop the mandate,” “my body my choice” and similar sentiments. “Keep America the Land of the Free,” urged one placard. “This is America. I did Nazi this coming,” read another. Other messages predicted more vaccine mandates are on the way. “Hold the line,” read one placard. “The children are next.”

The two-hour protest drew support from the majority of motorists passing through the traffic circle, as evidenced by blaring horns, thumbs-up gestures and fists in the air.

“We went the whole entire year without getting COVID,” said one PBMC maternity department nurse who joined the protest outside the hospital as it was just getting underway at 11 a.m.

“I’m a 17-year ER nurse. I worked for two years through this sh*t. And now this?” said one woman wearing scrubs.

The protesters included a lot of people who were not PBMC employees and many who were not healthcare workers but described themselves as anti-vaccine and/or anti-mandate and said they were attending the protest to support healthcare workers or out of concern that new mandates would be coming to other professions. Others expressed worry that the vaccine would be mandated for children.

Also present were members of Long Island Loud Majority, a pro-Trump group that has been promoting and helping organize protests at hospitals and school board meetings. It organized a huge road rally last year that used the parking lot of the former Walmart on Route 58 as a staging area for the North Fork leg of the rally.

“Last year’s heroes. This year’s unemployed,’” read several signs.

Some in the crowd said they would rather be unemployed than take the COVID-19 shot.

One woman, who said she works in an administrative position at a medical practice owned by the hospital, said she doesn’t want to take the vaccine out of a concern about a potential allergic reaction. “I’ll find something else to do to earn a living,” she said.

Other protesters said hospitals in New York will face a potentially catastrophic shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers if they terminate employees who refuse the vaccine.

It is unclear whether hospitals and other covered healthcare entities will — or are required to — terminate the employment of workers covered by the rules who refuse to take the shot.

PBMC spokesperson Victoria Palacio said what will happen after the deadline is “an internal matter.” She said over 82% of Northwell Health employees systemwide are vaccinated. “We do not expect any disruption to caring for our patients or our community,” Palacio said.

“We want our staff safe and healthy,” she said. “While we respect everyone’s right to free speech and to have their voices heard in a peaceful and civil manner, we as health care professionals and members of the largest health care provider in New York State have a unique responsibility to protect the health of our patients and each other,” Palacio said.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the vaccine mandate on Aug. 16, just one week before the scandal-plagued governor resigned from office. Two days after his announcement, N.Y. State Commissioner of Health Dr. Howard Zucker signed a summary order making the COVID-19 mandatory for workers in general hospitals and nursing homes. Covered employees are required by the order to get their first shot by Sept. 27. The Aug. 18 order allows for medical and religious exemptions. It left it up to the covered entity to design a plan to implement and enforce the order.

On Aug. 26, the State Department of Health’s Public Health and Health Planning Council approved emergency regulations that expand the vaccine mandate to additional types of healthcare facilities, including diagnostic and treatment centers, dental clinics, rehab clinics, midwifery birth centers, home and inpatient hospices, adult-care facilities and home health care agencies. The emergency regulations also eliminated a potential exemption based on religious beliefs.

Prior to the state mandate, Northwell had imposed a vaccine requirement with the ability to “test out” — that is, get tested weekly to prove the absence of infection with the novel coronavirus. “That was working,” Palacio said.

Both of the state’s largest healthcare workers unions, the New York State Nurses Association and SEIU 1199, have urged their members to get vaccinated but do not support vaccine mandates.

Health officials say vaccination is an important, but not the only, tool in a “layered approach” to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, which is surging in many parts of the country, including New York, as the highly contagious delta variant became the prevalent variant. They recommend both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces.

Vaccinated individuals can still become infected, but experience less severe symptoms and are far less likely to require hospitalization than unvaccinated people who become infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fully vaccinated individuals who become infected, even if they are asymptomatic. can also spread the virus to others, the CDC said. However, they are believed to be less likely to spread the virus to others, according to a study of over 200,000 people in England conducted by the College of London and published this summer in the New England Journal of Medicine.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti

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