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Staff file Photo by Robin Rudd / CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia, located at 100 Gross Crescent, was the site for a protest against the hospital system's new vaccine mandate on Saturday.

The group Tennessee Neighbors for Liberty protested Saturday at CHI Memorial Hospital in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia, in support of nurses and staff who do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Organizers said their top concern is ensuring employees at the hospital retain the right to make medical decisions for themselves without punishment, something they feel was threatened by CHI Memorial's decision to require its employees — including all physicians, advanced practice providers, volunteers and others caring for patients within CHI Memorial facilities — to get the vaccine by Nov. 1 to continue working at its hospital and branches. Protesters including Sarah Harden said requiring anyone to get any medical procedure to keep a job is wrong.

(READ MORE: Ivermectin and outrage: The viral aftermath for a conservative Chattanooga activist who lost his brother to COVID-19)

"These are good people who have worked hard for everyone during this whole pandemic and even before," she said. "It's not right to tell them they have to get the jab now or lose everything they've worked for. That's not what freedom is, and that's all we want is medical freedom. We want people to stop trying to take rights away. We have rights."

Jake Land said he wanted to protest because he has friends who have lost jobs in other fields because they refused to take the vaccine.

"It's wrong. It's not right," he said. "It's not against the law to not get vaccinated."

CHI Memorial's vaccine mandate was announced in August in an "effort to continue protecting our patients, staff and communities from this dangerous disease," according to the hospital.

In a statement Monday, CHI Memorial spokesperson Karen Long said the hospital values "meaningful dialogue and the right to respectfully share opinions."

The main purpose of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, she added, "is for the safety of our patients, visitors, employees and volunteers."

While some have pushed back against the requirement since then, Long said the requirement is not dissimilar to the already existing policy that requires Memorial's 4,600 employees to get an annual flu shot as a condition of employment. The primary purpose for requiring both is for patients, visitor, employee and volunteer safety, officials said.

(READ MORE: First teacher death from COVID-19 confirmed for Hamilton County Schools)

In August, Long said health system officials estimated the majority of its staff were already vaccinated based on how many vaccinations had been administered internally. The number of unvaccinated staff members is now expected to be even lower.

"Vaccination is the most effective and successful way to protect against COVID-19, to slow the spread, to prevent future variants, and to stop the pandemic," she said. "We strongly encourage anyone who hasn't already been vaccinated against COVID-19 to do so. If you need more information on available vaccines, please visit vaccines.gov."

(READ MORE: Some of Chattanooga's biggest employers unite in effort to boost vaccination rates)

CHI Memorial is one of 26 major Chattanooga-area employers that formed the Healthy Chattanooga Coalition with the goal of boosting vaccination levels in the region to least 60% by December and one of five companies within the coalition that will require all its employees to be vaccinated by November. The other four companies enforcing a Nov. 1 deadline are Bridge Financial Planning LLC, Chicken-w-Bones, Izell Marketing Group and McCallie School.

Other organizations involved with the coalition, such as BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Chattanooga Gas and the Tennessee Aquarium, will work to get employees vaccinated by offering incentives and support to them throughout the vaccination process.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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