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Haywood grant approval comes after opponents once again rail against the vaccine

Haywood County resident Eddie Cabe speaks in support of medical freedom during a Feb. 6 meeting. Haywood County government photo Haywood County resident Eddie Cabe speaks in support of medical freedom during a Feb. 6 meeting. Haywood County government photo

Two weeks after it was pulled from the consent agenda to allow more time for research and discussion, a $75,735 grant reimbursing Haywood County for money it had already spent on vaccination services was approved unanimously by Haywood County commissioners despite objections from more than 25 people who spoke out against it for nearly two hours — many of whom peddled vaccine misinformation similar to that heard at the previous meeting.

“I think there’s a misconception that we’re out coercing people into being vaccinated, because that’s not the case at all,” said Sarah Henderson, Haywood County’s public health services director. 

That was just one of the many false claims delivered at the meeting addressed by Henderson and Dr. Mark Jaben, the county’s medical director. 

On Jan. 17, the no-match grant had appeared on the meeting’s consent agenda, which usually contains administrative items that are deemed non-controversial. But after concerns from constituents and a flurry of incorrect, cherry-picked claims by speakers during public comment, Commissioner Brandon Rogers asked that the item be removed from the consent agenda and moved to the Jan. 25 meeting

“I want to be clear, I’m not against the vaccinations at all. I’m not an anti-vaxxer myself. I’ve got people in my own family that have chosen to get the vaccination. It’s fine if they do or fine if not,” Rogers explained to The Smoky Mountain News at the time. “Before moving forward with receiving these funds, I simply just want to understand how we’re spending them, and I want to feel comfortable with how we’re spending them.”

Chairman Kevin Ensley offered insight into his decision-making process by citing research he’d found on the Kaiser Family Foundation website. 

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“It’s a nonpartisan site, middle of the road. They did a study on COVID and the number of people and everything and I found out that 80% of the nation has gotten at least one shot, 80% of the United States has got a shot,” Ensley said. “North Carolina was in the top third, 87% of North Carolinians have had at least one shot. So I’m not sure it’s that controversial in the vast majority of the public, because most of the public has gotten at least a shot of the vaccine.”

According to Henderson, about 61% of Haywood County residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 58% have completed the original series of doses. 

Commissioner Terry Ramey — who has been the subject of media scrutiny for being delinquent on more than $2,000 in county property taxes over the past decade — told Henderson he wanted her to change the wording of the grant, specifically because it was “to focus on removing obstacles to accessing [the] vaccine, increasing vaccine confidence, coordinating COVID-19 vaccine services and expanding Public Health’s COVID-19 vaccination program.”

Henderson told him it was standard wording handed down from the state and not locally created. 

Ramey went on to call for unity, as only a few of the speakers at public comment supported the county’s receipt of the grant. 

“Seems like we got some people that don’t want to get along. We’ve got some emails — I did, I guess the rest of [commissioners] got them too — that called us all kinds of names and saying we’re bad leaders and we need to grow a set, and all kinds of stuff like that,” he said. “And to me, that’s people that don’t want to ever work together to make things right. That’s people that just want to keep stuff stirred up.”

Rogers defended his decision to pull the item from the Jan. 17 agenda — especially since grant acceptance wasn’t time sensitive — and then framed the issue not as one of misinformation but rather as one of medical freedom. 

“I’m not anti-vax by no means,” he said during the meeting. “I believe it all comes down to freedom of choice. That’s who I am as a person. I don’t like anybody telling me what to do, and if you don’t believe me, ask my wife.”

Commissioner Tommy Long expressed the same view. 

“I don’t want anybody telling me to take a vaccine,” Long said. “I don’t want somebody to tell me I can’t take a vaccine. It’s called freedom. It’s what our founding fathers died for.”

But Long also dove deeper into the purpose of the grant, pointing out that it wouldn’t be used to purchase the vaccine itself. 

“There’s $53,000 for salaries paid, $17,000 is for benefits, $5,000 for PPE. The way I see this, and correct me if I’m wrong, this is for the budget year 2022-23, so these expenditures started in June of last year,” he said. “So we’re seven months down the road on this. This is part of $17.8 million that was given from the federal government ARPA [President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act] funding to reimburse health departments for the extra burden that was put upon them across the state.”

Commissioner Jennifer Best said that she personally had misgivings about the vaccine, but echoed Long’s position on medical freedom. 

“For me, finally, what it came down to is, I think there are issues with the vaccine. I think the COVID virus is not going away. Hopefully it will lessen itself over time. I think that it scares our population, young and old, because it’s so uncertain, but unfortunately this is money we’ve been acting on. We’re just repaying ourselves for what we’ve done,” she said. “It’s a financial decision for me.”

One opponent of the grant who spoke at the meeting, Haywood County resident Eddie Cabe, had his comments about medical freedom used as a reason to accept the grant by both Long and Best. 

“It is not the job of the government to get involved between me and my health care,” Cabe said. 

“Folks, that’s a two-sided sword,” said Best. “It’s not for us to come between your decision and it’s not to come [between] somebody else’s decision. It is an individual decision.” 

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  • Saying that people brought up “false claims” is completely legitimate and unbiased. The beauty of Democracy is that you can hold and profess completely factually wrong statements, but at the end of the day the majority opinion rules, and it tends to favor objective truth, not misinformation, conspiracy theories, and knee-jerk emotional, illogical reactions.

    posted by Ron Sampler

    Friday, 02/10/2023

  • This comment is strictly about SMN's journalistic and editorial standards.

    Fairly soon into this article I double-checked to see if I was reading the Opinion page. Since when may a "reporter" include these adjectives in a "news" article? "...peddled vaccine misinformation..." "...just one of the many false claims..." "...incorrect, cherry-picked..."

    Calling out CORY VAILLANCOURT's editor here, for allowing those adjectives without substantiation. By doing so, you defamed the efforts of the citizens who took the time to show up and participate in democracy. To call your article "news," pretty sure you have to use an impartial tone.

    posted by Elizabeth Semple

    Friday, 02/10/2023

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