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Vaccine mandate deadline draws Ashland protesters

Photo by Allayana Darrow | Dr. Linda Hopkins advocates for vaccination and masking Monday while others protest against the vaccine mandate for school employees outside Ashland High School.

ASHLAND — Dr. Linda Hopkins sat under a tree in front of Ashland High School Monday, shielded by two signs encouraging vaccination and masking during the pandemic. A few hundred feet down Siskiyou Boulevard, dozens of protesters held signs opposing the vaccine mandate now in effect for K-12 school staff and health care workers.

Hopkins and her message supporting public health protocols stood apart from those grouped together with signs advocating for medical freedom and demands to question a mainstream narrative. One protester took Hopkins’ sign and hid it, while some AHS students on their lunch break wanted to hold her sign in support, she said.

Hopkins, a high-risk obstetrician, has a child in the Ashland school system and travels to California’s Bay Area for work.

“There, we’ve just banded together, we’ve got the job done and we’re really doing our best to take care of folks,” Hopkins said. “When I come back up here, it’s a little hard because I feel like a lot of folks don’t understand what’s happening. They don’t see it and they don’t see how sick my pregnant ladies are getting and the fact that we have premature babies born because they’re so sick.”

Hopkins earned her medical degree at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and specializes in prenatal diagnosis, according to University of California San Francisco Health, where Hopkins completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology, followed by a fellowship in maternal-fetal medicine and advanced training in clinical research.

Among protesters, groups of friends and families — some with young children holding signs of their own — were prepared to cite thousands of hours of independent research into the vaccine that fueled their motivation to join the rally.

“My response is that research is not all the same and I alone, if I were to go on the internet, that’s not research,” Hopkins said. “So instead, I’m guided by the public health folks and the infectious disease folks, who actually do research as it’s defined.”

When a patient indicates they do not want the vaccine, Hopkins said, she first listens to understand their experiences and what has contributed to forming their point of view. She then provides a medical recommendation and rationale, and offers her cell phone number if patients want to continue the discussion, acknowledging a difficult decision they must make.

At this point, Hopkins said, she feels wholly comfortable supporting COVID-19 vaccines due to mounting evidence that vaccines are safe for pregnant women and fetuses — early in the pandemic, the information hadn’t yet been analyzed, leaving obstetricians in a difficult position to properly advise their patients, she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends COVID-19 vaccination for all people 12 and older, including people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to conceive or might become pregnant. Growing data indicate the benefits of receiving a vaccine outweigh known or potential risks of vaccination during pregnancy.

No evidence shows that vaccines cause infertility in males or females, and pregnant women are more likely to become severely ill with COVID-19 than non-pregnant individuals, according to the CDC. COVID-19 vaccines protect against severe illness from the virus.

“It’s a conversation, and I feel like if I can spend the time to listen to what their concerns are and then just offer to continue the conversation, that perhaps over time they’ll change their mind,” Hopkins said of her vaccine-skeptical patients. “We don’t need everybody to get vaccinated, by no means, but we do need the combination of masking and vaccination at a community level to protect us.”

Kacy Curtis, a teacher at South Medford High School, said he joined the rally Monday because he believes in the right for people to make their own decisions regarding their health. Curtis kept his employment with South Medford without obtaining a vaccine by following the school district’s recommendation to apply for a religious exemption, he said.

Curtis said he elected to tune out from mainstream media because a fearful narrative didn’t resonate as true, and instead started listening to himself and “alternative avenues of information” that opened up.

Sabina Zobel said she gave up her health care job after 14 years last week because her request for a religious exemption was denied. Zobel echoed distrust of mainstream media and an inclination to listen to her own intuition, research and values about vaccines. The group said they respected other peoples’ choice to become vaccinated.

Michael Adams said a group of AHS students responded to the protest with anger, saying, “You’re putting us all at risk,” while out on their lunch break.

Unverified theories among the crowd ranged from claims that the vaccine, masking and fear compromise immunity, to some denying the pandemic ever existed.

The Oregon Health Authority reported 3,276 new cases of the virus Monday and 24 more fatalities, including four Jackson County residents. In all, 561 people in Oregon were hospitalized with the virus Monday, and 140 were in intensive care.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.