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ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – The debate over vaccinations has led to a protest outside Mercy Hospital South.

Demonstrators walked along the public sidewalk on Kennerly Road to protest the hospital’s policy requiring employees to get flu shots.

However, it’s unclear if any hospital employees were involved in the protest. The demonstrators said they’re supporters of employees who request an exemption from the flu shot because of valid religious or medical reasons.

Nelia Abuchon, the woman who organized the protest, said she’s a friend of a Mercy South Hospital nurse who was terminated this week after her exemption based on religious reasons was denied.

The protest organizer said her friend has been a nurse at this hospital for five years and had been granted a religious exemption in the past when this facility was known as St. Anthony’s Medical Center. But since Mercy bought the hospital about a year ago, it seems it’s tougher to get that exemption.

“Mercy has a policy that says that they accept religious and medical exemptions and yet, in practice, it appears that they are not accepting them, they’re denying them,” Abuchon said. “Here at Mercy South, this nurse knows of no other doctor or nurse who actually was granted their religious or medical exemption and, frankly, here we’re focused on the religious exemption because this nurse chose rather than being coerced in receiving the shot. She was terminated yesterday.”

Mercy Hospital South released the following statement Tuesday afternoon in response to the protests:

“The point of our flu vaccination policy is simple: protection against the flu virus saves lives, especially those of our most vulnerable patients.

“Those co-workers whose exemption requests were not accepted will be notified this week and, in accordance with our policy, will not be permitted to remain employed without receiving a vaccination.”

Mercy’s statement goes on to say out of its more than 44,000 employees system-wide, it received approximately 170 exemption requests this year. The majority of those requests were approved.

The protesters said in addition to religious and medical exemptions, this also is a choice issue. One protester even held a sign saying, “My body, my choice.” There were some representatives taking part in the demonstration from the Missouri Coalition for Vaccine Choice and the Missouri Coalition for Medical Freedom.