Kaiser Permanente confirmed Monday that it is denying some requests for religious exemptions to the coronavirus vaccination mandate on grounds that it believes they were insincere.
The situation came to a head over the weekend when a nurse at Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center in Kearny Mesa posted two videos of herself being escorted from the facility after learning she was being put on unpaid leave after her request was deemed “not good enough for Kaiser.”
A statement issued by Dr. Andrew Bindman, Kaiser’s chief medical officer for its entire multi-state system that employs more than 200,000 workers, said the enterprise became aware of “online discussions around ways to avoid the vaccine mandate by misusing the legitimate religious exemption process,” with some making “similar or nearly identical requests containing language taken word-for-word from free and paid” online templates and forms.
California’s vaccination mandate for health care workers took effect on Sept. 30, but allows individual providers to grant exemptions for religious or medical reasons at their discretion.
After that date passed, Kaiser said it “conducted a thorough and thoughtful review” of all the religious exemption requests that had been made and “gave employees the opportunity to ensure their requests reflected their sincerely held beliefs.”
That investigation concluded that some were not sincere, and their requests were denied.
“We believe that misusing the religious exemption to avoid vaccination is disrespectful to those with sincere religious beliefs, and could violate the ethical standards we expect our employees to meet,” Bindman’s statement said.
A pair of videos posted to the Instagram account of nurse and dietician Tori Jensen Saturday suggest that the decision had a sudden effect for some. Shot selfie style while security escorted her from Kaiser’s newest San Diego hospital, Jensen said her attempts to learn more from human resources about why her exemption was denied went nowhere until she was told she was being placed on unpaid leave.
Wearing a blue floral head covering and walking quickly up seven stories of stairs to the top of the facility’s adjacent parking structure with a uniformed hospital security guard in her wake, Jensen said she was determined to stand up for her “sincerely held religious beliefs” though she did not specify what those beliefs were. Most organized churches have come out in favor of vaccination.
Jensen noted that she took care of her community when the pandemic started in 2020 and no vaccine was available.
“All I wanted to do is work,” she said. “I’ve been a COVID nurse since the beginning when we didn’t know what was going on, when we didn’t know what kind of rooms we were walking into.”
Adding the hashtag “letsgobrandon” to one of her posts, the mother of two also signaled a political point of view. The phrase has recently become the rallying cry of many on the right who are unhappy with recent decisions made by President Joe Biden and his administration.
“Freedom matters to me,” the nurse said. “It’s a slippery slope when you start taking away freedoms.”
Kaiser’s statement addressed Jensen’s situation directly, saying that she could have spoken to a human resources representative to further hash things out, but did not directly address her assertion on video that her requests to talk with HR went nowhere.
“If our employee in this case had connected with HR, she could have asked questions and been provided information about next steps for addressing the vaccination requirement,” Kaiser said.
Jensen could not be reached Monday for further comment on the situation.
Kaiser has not said exactly how many employees had their religious exemption requests denied as Jensen did, stating Monday that 93 percent of its employees are now vaccinated and “approximately 1 percent of our active workforce have declined to respond and are now on unpaid leave.”
All, Kaiser said, have until Dec. 1 to get vaccinated.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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