Lansing — Hundreds of people gathered on the Capitol lawn Friday to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates that have been increasingly popular at Michigan's universities and health care systems.
Carrying signs that said "Jab or Job? Wrong!," "Let me call my shots" and "Natural immunity is the gold standard," representatives from the health care industry, state universities, the Legislature and even a group of nuns were in attendance.
There were also faces that have become familiar at Michigan protests during the pandemic, including members of the anti-lockdown group Stand Up Michigan, the school sport advocacy group Let Them Play and supporters of business owners who rose to infamy when they skirted pandemic rules.
"We're here today to fight for individuals' rights to choose — that's all — in the employment area, in the student area, in the schools, in the universities ... or wherever else it is mandated," said Ron Armstrong, president for Stand Up Michigan, which organized the event with Michigan Vaccine Choice, Healthcare Workers for Freedom and other groups.
Organizers planned to give people resources to help them ask employers or universities for explanations regarding why they should be vaccinated if they'd already had the virus and its accompanying antibodies, Armstrong said. Resources would also be made available to help people confront employers regarding what level of responsibility firms will accept if an employee had an adverse reaction to a mandated vaccine.
As of Friday, nearly 59% of the state's population over the age of 12 has received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the state health department. Michigan has reported 910,500 confirmed cases of the virus and 19,950 deaths connected to the coronavirus.
Among the universities already requiring vaccination are the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. Hospital systems requiring the vaccine include Beaumont Health, Spectrum Health, the Henry Ford Health System, Ascension Health and Trinity Health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has maintained the COVID-19 vaccines, which have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use, is safe and effective. The CDC also has said that people who have already recovered from COVID-19 should still get vaccinated "because experts do not yet know long you are protected from getting sick again" and the vaccine could provide a boost to an individual's defenses.
But many at Friday's protest expressed a distrust in the CDC's changing guidance during the pandemic and, specifically, its insistence on vaccination for people who have recovered from the virus.
Heather Giacona, a nurse for Ascension Health, said she contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 and still tested positive for antibodies as of this week. She's opposed to the mandate and is seeking additional answers from the hospital system's executive team regarding the requirement.
"There are too many unknowns around the virus itself and the vaccine," said Giacona, a resident of Chesterfield Township. "People have to have the right to choose where they're going to take the risk. ... They should be respecting the rights of their own healthcare workers just like we have to uphold the rights of our patients everyday."
Fellow Ascension nurse Amy Malone of Oxford emphasized she's not "anti-vax," but doesn't believe there has been enough time and research to know the full effect of the vaccine. Malone also already had COVID.
"I just feel like the vaccine does not have enough research, and I'm just not comfortable getting it," she said.
The day before MSU announced it's COVID mandate, 21-year-old P.J. Sarotte went to his doctor's office to get the vaccine. But when he expressed reservations about the shot, he said his doctor supported his decision to leave without the vaccination.
Now, Sarotte said he's not sure whether he'll be able to finish his senior year at the university in person because MSU is not showing the same support.
"It's a human right to an education," Sarotte said. "It's a human right to have an education based on merit. But what they're telling us today is our education isn't based on merit. It's based on vaccination status."
Gerald Riley of Waterford attended the protest not only to forestall any potential mandates at his place of work but also to show support for those who are already being mandated to get the shot. Riley, who contracted COVID-19 in November, argued the vaccines are not safe.
"We are in the middle of an information war," Riley said. "One side has their information. The other side has their information. And it's basically, who are you listening to?"
Lawmakers in attendance Friday included GOP Sen. Tom Barrett of Charlotte and Republican Reps. Matt Maddock of Milford, Sue Allor of Wolverine, Daire Rendon of Lake City and John Reilly of Oakland Township.