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RI HEALTH

Unvaccinated R.I. health care workers protest state’s vaccine mandate

More than 300 people marched in Providence after a small percentage of health care workers were put on unpaid leave for refusing to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Protesters rally for "medical freedom" as Rhode Island's COVID-19 vaccine mandate takes effect on Oct. 1.
Protesters rallied in defiance of Rhode Island's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.Alexa Gagosz

PROVIDENCE — On Friday afternoon, more than 300 people protested at the Rhode Island State House in support of health care workers who had refused to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Health care workers who remained unvaccinated by Friday were informed that they had been placed on unpaid administrative leave and their jobs would be terminated if they did not get the vaccine.

The majority of health care workers in Rhode Island were or were about to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Friday, the mandate’s deadline. But a small number of workers — less than 5 percent in some health care facilities — continue to refuse the vaccine.

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They and their supporters took to the streets of Providence on Friday, calling for “medical freedom.” As the crowd swelled, few wore face masks. Some carted their children in wagons, waived American flags, and held signs that read, “my body, my choice,” “we will not comply,” and “unmask our children.”

“These people are no longer employed,” said Paul Rianna Jr., who until Friday was a certified nursing assistant at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital. He helped organize the protest. “They aren’t going to back down and get the vaccine. We are going to keep fighting.”

R.I. state Senator Jessica de la Cruz speaks at a rally for health care workers who are protesting the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate on Oct. 1, 2021, in Providence.
R.I. state Senator Jessica de la Cruz spoke at the rally Friday.Alexa Gagosz

State Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, spoke at the rally and said that she is not “anti-vaccine.”

“I’m actually pro-vaccine. I think that if you want to get the vaccine, then you should get it. But I am against coercion,” she told the crowd. “Some people have medical reasons or religious reasons. You should have the right to decide for yourself.”

The senator was an outspoken supporter of the four anonymous health care workers who sued the state, asking for the state health department to allow religious exemptions. The suit was blocked by a judge this week.

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“If necessary, we will appeal all the way to the United State Supreme Court,” she said.

Health care workers were given more than five weeks’ notice to either get vaccinated or lose their job, and possibly their professional license. But still, many who said they refused the vaccine received letters alerting them that they would be placed on unpaid administrative leave by their employers as of Oct. 1. In two weeks, they will likely be terminated. And they will likely be ineligible to receive unemployment benefits.

Many of these workers applied for religious exemptions, and were denied. But most major religions are encouraging people to get vaccinated. Pope Francis was vaccinated in January and called it a “moral duty” for others to get the shot. The Vatican itself isn’t allowing exemptions, and those who do not get the vaccine will not receive a salary.

State Senator Elaine Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, asked the crowd, “Where are those women in the red cloaks, yelling for pro choice? They should be here.”

She called for “freedom-loving Rhode Islanders” to “step up” and get involved in politics.

“All of you that are unemployed. … What have your elected officials done for you? Run for office,” she said.

After a nearly an hour and a half of speeches, demonstrators descended from Smith Hill, walking toward Providence Place Mall. They shouted in the middle of the street as shoppers and diners inside the mall recorded them with their phones.

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One woman handed her two young children masks and said, “Put these on while they are walking by. They didn’t get the shots.”

The protestors wrapped around Providence City Hall and Kennedy Plaza. A worker from a nearby 7/11 opened the store’s door and started yelling: “Stop the mandate!”

Rianna, who previously announced that he would be running for governor as an independent to “fight for medical freedom,” said that demonstrations like this were only the beginning.

“We were heroes last year and now no one is fighting for us,” he said. “We have to fight for ourselves, and we aren’t going to back down.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.