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‘I trust my immune system’

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Teacher who quit talks about her decision not to get the COVID-19 vaccine
Photo courtesy of Betsy Herren Elizabeth “Betsy” Herren, a former Williams Community Preschool employee who refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
This July 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows a vial of the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)

Long before Oct. 18, Elizabeth “Betsy” Herren knew she was not going to get the coronavirus vaccine.

So before instruction started this year at the Williams Community Preschool — located on the grounds of Williams Elementary, but run and staffed by the Sugarloaf Community Association — she decided she would let her superiors know that she would not return.

“Teaching 3- to 5-year-olds, I really didn’t feel like I had a good explanation for them why I would be there one day and not the next,” Herren said. “I just couldn’t see putting them through that.”

Herren is one of a handful of employees who refused to comply with OAR 333-019-1030, which states that teachers, staff and volunteers may not be involved at a school in any way after Oct. 18 unless they can show proof they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or get a medical or religious exemption.

Herren spoke to the Mail Tribune Monday, at a time when several school districts were reporting most of their employees were in compliance with the state mandate, while witnessing few protests on the matter from those who disapproved.

On social media, word circulated about a “national walkout day” of school workers for having to comply with similar mandates. A representative with the Medford School District said she knew of at least four employees who had taken personal leave to be part of the demonstration, but had found substitutes who could fill in for instruction.

Asked about the divisiveness surrounding the coronavirus shots, Herren said even if she had complied with the mandate, she would “still be supporting people to stand up for their medical freedoms.”

Herren claimed that many parents of her former students “totally supported” her decision not to go along with the mandate — even pulling their kids out of school because they thought she was an irreplaceable teacher.

Herren added she’s been encouraged to join lawsuits against the vaccine mandate, but has made a decision to not to be part of it.

“I’m strongly standing for medical freedom to the point of stepping away from my position, but I really value our program from a personal and community standpoint,” Herren said. “We’re really able to serve kids that we pull out of the woodwork and give them a lot of advantage before they enter kindergarten. So I would never try to sue them.”

Herren’s story about not getting vaccinated against COVID-19 started in early 2020, before vaccines or coronavirus testing was even available. She lost her sense of taste and smell over several days, but it happened when the district canceled classes due to snow, so she did not miss instruction.

“I was sicker than I’ve ever been only one other time in my life,” she said. “It took a long time to get back on my feet.”

Then, this past summer, the COVID-19 delta variant started to become widespread.

“We did have to shut down our class because of kids having it,” Herren said. “We had a summer session and had to shut down early, but I didn’t get sick because I already had it.”

That was a major driver in her decision not to get the coronavirus vaccine. Herren says she has “natural antibodies” to fight it off — and got a blood test to prove it.

The question over whether getting COVID-19 once is reason enough not to get the vaccine has been studied, as it was in Israel. But health experts in the U.S. dispute this, saying that this immunity has its limits and someone who has been infected with COVID-19 can benefit greatly from getting the vaccine.

There’s yet another element to Herren’s decision. She says health officials “didn’t have time to test” the coronavirus vaccines.

Yet how the vaccines can be so effective despite being developed so quickly is one question the Center for Disease Control and Prevention answers on its Frequently Asked Questions page. The agency first and foremost stated that “all steps were taken to make sure they are safe and effective.”

The CDC also said that three-phase clinical trials were implemented on each vaccine — phases that “overlapped to speed up the process,” but nevertheless “were completed.”

Herren said she wants to see “long-term results” of the vaccine, which she said “we won’t know for years.”

The CDC said vaccine monitoring systems are in place, “giving CDC and FDA the ability to evaluate COVID-19 vaccine safety in real time and make sure COVID-19 vaccines are as safe as possible.”

Regardless, Herren is unequivocal in her stance that she won’t ever get a COVID-19 shot.

“I trust my immune system more than I trust the pharmaceutical [industry],” she said.

Herren saw things on social media leading her to believe she would not be safe as the only unvaccinated person at Williams Elementary.

“I felt like I would have a target on my back,” she said.

Whatever the case about her safety, Herren felt that by stepping down from her job, she was helping the school.

“The kindest thing I could do was step back, at that point,” she said. “I want parents to feel safe sending their kids to school, and if me being there unvaccinated was preventing people from feeling safe sending their kids to school, then I would want to step out of the way.”