PENSACOLA, Fla. (WKRG) — A “freedom rally” was held Friday near Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola to protest the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

The rally comes after Ascension Medical Group announced last week all employees at its hospitals across the country would be required to get the vaccine before November 12th. 

Ascension Sacred Heart employees and others joined together Friday to say no to the vaccine mandate. 

“I’m here to show support for medical freedom for health care heroes,” said Amanda Ray, who is acting as a spokesperson for the group against the mandate.

About 7,000 people had signed an online petition as of Friday afternoon, calling on Ascension to rescind its mandate. 

The petition says it is “unethical, immoral, and unjust to require an individual to accept any medical intervention that he or she does not wish to partake in.”

“I do not have an issue with vaccination and I think we should be encouraging people to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Jon Ward, a former doctor at an Ascension hospital in Panama City. “But, we should not be forcing them to get vaccinated.” 

Ward said he recently gave up his Ascension hospital privileges in Panama City out of fear he’d receive punishment for standing against the mandate. 

“This is literally saying if you don’t make this choice, your ability to make a living is going to be gone,” Ward said. “It’s a slippery slope to some very scary things that we could see coming.”  

Opinions differ from one person to the next, but the group Medical Freedom for Ascension Associates makes it clear they aren’t anti-vaccine. They’re anti-mandate. 

“I’ve had conversations with current employees and all of them have told me they are not against the vaccine. They’re not anti-science. That’s a very huge misconception,” Ray said. “What they are is uncomfortable at this time. So what they don’t want is to be coerced into making a decision or losing their employment.”

Ascension Sacred Heart released the following statement in response to the rally: 

We respect their right to peacefully voice their opinions about the COVID-19 vaccine We believe the latest rapid surge of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in our region clearly demonstrates the urgency for everyone eligible to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their loved ones, our patients and staff, and the community.

We also know that serious illness from COVID-19 is largely preventable. 

Approximately 95 percent of our patients at Ascension Sacred Heart who have been hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated. These hospitalizations are preventable.

We must do more to overcome this highly contagious disease as we provide safe environments for those we serve. Like many health systems across the country, Ascension hospitals are moving to require our associates to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 12, 2021. This date aligns with the timing of the mandatory influenza vaccination program we’ve operated successfully for many years.

This decision is rooted in our Mission commitment to leading with quality and safety. As a healthcare provider and as a Catholic ministry, ensuring we have a culture of safety for our associates, patients and communities is foundational to our work.

 In those instances when someone may not be able to get vaccinated due to a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief, Ascension will provide a process for requesting an exemption. That process is similar to the one we use for the annual influenza vaccine, which Ascension Sacred Heart associates have been required to get for years.