HUNTINGTON — Social media in the Tri-State lit up this past week when word spread that WSAZ-TV news anchor Amanda Barren had been terminated after she followed her doctor’s advice and refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
While neither Barren nor the station will confirm or deny anything that’s been said about the situation — thus the social media rumors cannot be verified — others have jumped into the public debate on whether public or private employers should require COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment.
Putnam County Sheriff Robert Eggleton voiced his opinion in a nearly four-minute-long video titled, “Stand up Americans,” that he posted to his personal Facebook page.
“I had a conversation with a friend of mine yesterday, and most of you would know Amanda Barren, news anchor WSAZ, Channel 3. She lost her job this week because she refused to take a vaccine,” Eggleton says in the video, while wearing a black cowboy hat and a Putnam County Sheriff’s Department shirt.
“This is wrong. In any way, shape or form this is wrong,” he said. “When you start mandating individuals to put something in their body, it’s not only a violation of the Constitution; it’s a violation of their rights as an individual.”
Many others took to social media to voice their opinions about Barren and vaccine mandates after she was taken off the “Meet the Team” page on the station’s website.
The Putnam County Republican Club posted a tweet Wednesday saying, “Reports indicate @WSAZnews fired Amanda Barren for following the guidance of her doctor and not being Covid vaccinated. What do you think about the radical actions of WSAZ?”
Gray Television sent staffers a memo earlier this year saying the vaccination was a requirement for all of its employees with no option for testing each week.
According to the memo, effective Sept. 15, Gray required “as a condition of employment, that every employee who occupies a ‘manager’ position in our company be ‘fully vaccinated’ against the Coronavirus.” It added that all full-time and part-time employees, outside contractors, tenants and guests who enter Gray workspaces are required to be “fully vaccinated” as of Oct. 1.
“At Gray Television, we continue to make the health and safety of our employees our highest priority. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, the COVID-19 public health crisis is getting worse in too many communities across the country,” the memo said, signed by the Gray Leadership Team.
Following the Oct. 1 deadline, there were national media reports of other Atlanta-based Gray Television anchors and staff members refusing to get the vaccine.
While the company did not return repeated requests for comments from HD Media, Kevin P. Latek, Gray Television’s executive vice president and chief legal officer, told The Washington Post on Wednesday the company does not comment on individual personnel matters.
The Post reported that Latek shared a statement that said more than a thousand employees chose to receive a vaccine after the policy was announced. While most employees supported the rule, the statement continued, “we unfortunately have had to terminate the employment of a very small portion of our workforce,” the Post reported.
The statement went on to say the company wished the terminated employees well and informed them that they are welcome to re-apply for positions with Gray if they do decide in the future to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
While some Gray employees terminated have cited already having COVID-19 as a reason for not getting the vaccine in the Post’s report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination regardless of prior infection because research has not determined how long that protection lasts.
“We also recommend following the CDC guidelines on this issue,” said Hannah Petracca, public information officer with the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.
At the direction of President Joe Biden’s executive order last month, the Department of Labor’s Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA) is crafting a rule that would require employers with 100 or more employees to require their staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or provide a negative test each week.
Mountain Health Network announced in August all employees of Cabell Huntington Hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center and HIMG must get vaccinated.
“The deadline for becoming fully vaccinated is Oct. 31, 2021,” Susan Beth Robinson, vice president of human resources at Mountain Health Network, said in an email.
Robinson said they are not aware of any staff member who has left their job because of the company’s vaccine policy.
If the hospitals’ employees choose to not get vaccinated, they are submitted to surveillance testing one or two times a week.
The West Virginia Hospital Association released a statement in August that voiced support for health care professionals to be inoculated against the virus. West Virginia University Health Systems and Charleston Area Medical Center followed suit by adding the COVID-19 vaccine to their list of required vaccinations. Neither of the state’s two largest health care providers listed any exceptions to their vaccine policies in their news release.
In Charleston, Thomas Health has communicated to its employees that anyone not vaccinated by Oct. 27 will no longer be eligible to receive a free vaccine from the hospital, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is in the process of writing a rule that would require Medicare- and Medicaid-certified facilities to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. It’s a rule that Thomas Health CEO Dan Lauffer says they plan to follow.
“We have to have a safe place for our patients to get care,” Lauffer said. “Vaccines help protect ourselves, employees and the patients we work for.”
The health care industry is not the only sector stepping up in requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for staff.
Delta Air Lines employees have been required to be fully vaccinated or submit a weekly negative test since Sept. 12. Delta employees enrolled in the company’s health care plan who decide to remain unvaccinated will be required to pay a $200 fee each month.
Walmart employees were also forewarned of a vaccine mandate in July when they announced all staff needed to get their vaccines by Oct. 4, unless they obtained an exception. Walmart employs more than 12,000 West Virginians, according to data on their corporate website.
HD Media, the parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch, requires all employees not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear a mask at all times. In addition to masking, all HD Media employees not fully vaccinated by Oct. 11 will be required to submit a negative COVID-19 test to their supervisor each week.
At Marshall University, President Jerome Gilbert said last month he doesn’t believe the university needs to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine given the high rate of vaccination among students and staff.
“We continue to encourage, not require, (COVID-19) vaccines, and that has resulted in our employees being vaccinated at a rate of 87%. Our students on campus are now vaccinated at a rate of 77%, so our total vaccination rate is 79%,” Gilbert said.
Those who are unvaccinated, he added, are tested weekly.
In June, the University of Charleston announced it would require students be vaccinated to return to campus for the fall semester. The mandate fell short of requiring university employees to be vaccinated at the start of the semester.
In an interview with HD Media, university president Marty Roth said the decision to mandate the vaccine among students and not faculty was in part because of the “communal environment” for students who live on campus, whereas employees of the university do not live on campus. Roth also cited legal issues with requiring employees to get vaccinated.
“The return to campus policy that we released for fall 2021 remains unchanged,” Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dave Traube said. “We haven’t really received much pushback from folks who have elected not to get vaccinated for whatever that reason may be.”
According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, 96% of students are vaccinated and 90% of employees.
West Virginia Civil Rights attorney John H. Bryan says he believes there could be legal challenges to employers’ vaccine mandates.
“I think there’s a good case to be made that state or local government employers may not lawfully mandate the COVID-19 vaccine, as detailed in Patrick Morrisey’s opinion letter dated September 10, 2021,” Bryan said. “However, private employers have much more leeway in mandating vaccinations of their employees. However, there are state and federal discrimination laws which may foreclose even a private employer from terminating an employee for refusal or inability to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Bryan also gave his opinion regarding Barren’s situation.
“If the employee of a private company, such as Amanda Barren, cannot, or should not according to the advice of her physician, receive the COVID-19 vaccine, there may exist liability present for that employer under the state and federal discrimination laws,” he said. “There is science existing now, and developing continuously, on the existence and efficacy of natural immunity for those who have already contracted the disease. Moreover, if you’ve contracted the disease and been given monoclonal antibodies, they actually instruct you not to get vaccinated within 90 days of the treatment. For this reason, and others, even a private company may incur liability for a wrongful termination on these grounds.”