In 2019, Chelsea Sheppard was saving lives and instructing medical students at the University of Virginia (UVA). When the pandemic hit, she would take on extra shifts and follow all the university’s health requirements. The university would reward her long hours and dedication to the Covid-19 response, then terminate her two years later, denying her religious exemption from a vaccine still considered a medical experiment.
Sheppard was a clinical pathologist specializing in transfusion medicine and blood banking and served as a regional medical director for the American Red Cross before being hired as an associate professor by UVA. She was named director of the university’s stem cell collection facility, overseeing transfusions and the education of medical students, residents, and fellows.
At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sheppard, who agreed to share her story with me, was “very concerned” and “cautious.” She and her husband, a practicing physician who works primarily with the elderly, carefully changed out of their work clothes and scrubs in the garage before entering their home and running laundry every night.
Sheppard gathered Covid studies from South Korea, Singapore, France, Germany, and other developed countries, translating when necessary, and reviewing as much international data as possible. By early fall of 2020, there was a growing body of data on infection fatality rate and case fatality rate.
But as other countries sent their children back to school and some countries and states embraced natural immunity strategies with successful or equivalent outcomes to heavily locked down locales, it became apparent that rational discussion of the virus was taboo.
In the United States specifically, “everything stopped making sense,” Sheppard said. “States were sending patients with positive tests and symptoms back into nursing homes with vulnerable patients. We had … bizarre testing data and strategies. There were models released showing asymptomatic transmission rates at around 50 percent, which made no sense. It seemed we were handling this in a very different way than we had ever done in ‘public health’ and there wasn’t a clear reason why.”
Then the vaccines began to be released.
“Suddenly, everything was completely upside down,” Sheppard said. “The speed alone of the release was unprecedented, along with the lack of transparency on the data.”
A licensed physician since 2007, Sheppard had always abided by informed consent — giving patients a full explanation of medication and procedural risks and providing information on alternative treatment options. Not only was transparent data unavailable in the U.S., ethical practices were quickly disappearing. But nothing, Sheppard said, could prepare her for the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
“The idea that we would coerce people to get vaccinated, to effectively force participation in a clinical trial with an experimental therapy with no long-term data, by threatening their livelihoods, their ability to care for and feed their children, and convince them that they were awful people not fit for medical care if they refused, was the complete annihilation of medical ethics,” she said.
In August of 2021, Sheppard’s employer, UVA Health System, announced that anyone not vaccinated or exempted from vaccination by the end of October would be out of compliance with the mandate and subject to discipline and possible termination.
This was a year and a half after health care workers at the hospital had been treating Covid patients; by then, most had been exposed to and infected with Covid-19. (Sheppard believed she had Covid in March 2020, but testing wasn’t available then. In early 2022, she confirmed she had antibodies via testing.)
The University of Virginia sent out emails advising employees that they could apply for a religious exemption by “briefly” explaining the reasons why vaccination violated their religious beliefs.
“I specifically remember reading the word ‘briefly’ because I thought to myself: ‘No way, I am going to be very thorough in my explanation,’” Sheppard said.
According to the Virginia constitution, a religious exemption can be filed on grounds of violating specific religious tenets or based on a conscience argument. Sheppard argued that vaccine development using stem cells from aborted fetuses and medical coercion were both immoral and unethical. The stem cells Sheppard collected at the UVA transplant facility were either from the patient or an adult donor. Sheppard did not use aborted fetal tissue to save lives, but several of the Covid-19 vaccines on the market do — either in the research and development stage or directly in production.
“As a mother of a child with Down syndrome, and a Christian, I believe abortion is a sin and profiting off such a sin is abjectly immoral,” Sheppard said. “I also believe as a Christian, forcing people against their will into medical experimentation, either by threatening their well-being or by coercing them through bullying tactics, like accusation of murder, is not only completely immoral but also incompatible with long-standing medical principles regarding ethical clinical research.”
Sheppard submitted her exemption request on Sept. 7, 2021. For three weeks she received emails from a “no reply” address at UVA stating deadlines for vaccination.
Having heard no response to her exemption request, the day before the final day of vaccination Sheppard emailed several groups that were listed as possible contacts on the UVA emails and asked to speak with someone. “Up until that time none of the no reply emails ever listed any contact person. No names were ever included, only vague things like the ‘Covid task force’ or the ‘hospital epidemiology team.’ Finally, in frustration, I stated I would like to speak with someone that day or I would be forced to seek legal help.”
Within about 10 minutes, Sheppard said her exemption was formally denied. The “no reply” emails she continued to receive directed her not to contact human resources, as no individual cases regarding denied exemptions would be discussed.
Up until this point, Sheppard said, her bosses had continued to call to ask if her decision had changed. The phone calls were cordial, though none of her supervisors were willing to assist her in obtaining an exemption, she said.
On Nov. 3, 2021, Sheppard was summoned to a meeting with the dean of the School of Medicine in a closed meeting with an HR consultant present.
“She stated that she was suggesting my termination based on the fact that I was not compliant with the mandate because I was neither vaccinated nor exempted,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard was formally suspended in a letter dated the next day.
The final step in the process was a “peer-review” panel with representatives from the faculty senate. A UVA lawyer was also present.
Given less than 48 hours to appear, Sheppard managed to argue for a delay so as to obtain legal counsel. She was given until the next business day.
When Sheppard stood before the panel, the members admitted they had never read her exemption, she said. But that didn’t stop them from advising that her termination was legitimate according to university policy and should stand.
“I worked for two years through the pandemic,” she said. “I worked overtime. I received two annual bonuses during this time, the first was given specifically for working overtime during the pandemic. I followed all of the rules. I wore masks on campus, I gave a daily attestation of my health even when I was not on campus, and I was weekly tested for Covid due to my unvaccinated status for over two months during this period of time even on weeks when I would not be on campus.
“As someone with natural immunity and 11 negative tests for Covid, I was unarguably one of the safest people on campus given that vaccinated employees were not being routinely tested and yet were just as capable of being infected and transmitting Covid,” Sheppard said.
But she was fired just the same.
Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, has been hearing from health care workers across the commonwealth — dedicated, well-trained, and experienced workers who were lauded as “heroes” during the pandemic and then, like Sheppard, terminated after being denied religious exemptions to the vaccine.
“To the extent I have been able to determine, there has been no effort by these employers to offer reasonable accommodations for these workers, as required by federal law,” LaRock wrote in a letter to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office on May 4. “These workers are being threatened with denial of unemployment benefits as employers misrepresent these terminations as voluntary.”
“Most, or perhaps all, of these workers who have chosen a religious exemption are being punished and discriminated against for a decision based on deeply held beliefs in direct violation of the protections contained in our Virginia constitution and various statutes.”
Taxpayer dollars, LaRock noted, are being used to fight against at least one Virginian “wrongfully terminated” after refusing an employer-mandated vaccine for deeply held personal convictions.
Abandonment of Care
“It is my sincere hope that after all of the recent evidence and a thorough investigation of the motives, intentions, and actions by public health leaders for the last two-and-a-half years, we physicians commit to whatever actions must be taken to ensure this never happens again,” Sheppard said. “The complete abandonment of our commitment to personhood, the scientific method, and our duty as scientists and healers was devastating.”