When nurse Julia Buffo was told by her Montana hospital that she had to be vaccinated against COVID-19, she responded by filling out paperwork declaring that the shots run afoul of her religious beliefs.
She cited various Old and New Testament verses including a passage from Revelations that vaccine opponents often quote to liken the shots to the "Mark of the Beast." She told her managers that God is the "ultimate guardian of health" and that accepting the vaccine would make her "complicit with evil."
Religious exemptions like the one Buffo obtained are increasingly becoming a workaround for unvaccinated hospital and nursing home workers who want to keep their jobs in the face of federal mandates that are going into effect nationwide this week.
In some institutions, religious exemptions are being invoked by staff and approved by managers in large numbers. It's a tricky issue for hospital administrators, who are struggling to maintain adequate staff levels and are often reticent to question the legitimacy of the requests.
"We're not going to have a Spanish inquisition with Torquemada deciding if your religious exemption is granted or not by the Grand Inquisitor," said Dr. Randy Tobler, CEO of Scotland County Hospital in Missouri, where about 25% of the 145 employees remain unvaccinated and 30 of them have been granted exemptions.
Tobler, who is vaccinated, said some employees threatened to quit if they were required to get the shot.
"For people that want to judge what we're doing in rural America, I'd love them to come and walk in our shoes for a little while, just come and sit in the desk and try to staff the place," Tobler said.