Allegations ‘simply untrue,’ medical school says of Louisiana AG’s lawsuit

Jeff Landry accused school of denying exemptions to its vaccine mandate

By: - August 5, 2021 4:08 pm

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (Image via RLDF.org).

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s lawsuit claiming a Northeast Louisiana medical school has “blackballed” or punished three students who are refusing the COVID-19 vaccine is “simply untrue,” the college provost said Wednesday after learning Landry had filed a lawsuit against the school.  

In an emailed statement to the Illuminator, Dr. Dixie Tooke-Rawlins, the president and provost of Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), contested several points Landry raises in the lawsuit he filed Tuesday in the federal courthouse in Monroe and called on the attorney general to reject misinformation and stop using the vaccine as a political ploy.

“The claim of Landry’s lawsuit that VCOM told the three students it would deny any request for vaccination exemption and threatened to punish the students for their refusal is simply not the truth,” she said.

Landry’s lawsuit identifies the three students as Rachel Lynn Magliulo from Florida, and a current resident of Ouachita Parish, and Lincoln parish residents Matthew Shea Willis and Kirsten Willis Hall. 

VCOM is a fully private college that leases space on the University of Louisiana-Monroe campus. It does not not receive any state money for its building or operations, Tooke-Rawlins said. Other private colleges in Louisiana, including Tulane, Dillard and Xavier, have instituted similar vaccine mandates. 

The lawsuit claims that the three students, all of whom are entering their second year at VCOM, were denied religious exemptions to the school’s vaccine mandate “without any legitimate basis” and claims that the school threatened they “would be ‘black-balled’ or ostracized in the medical community for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccination.”

“VCOM has not denied any request for exemptions that the students have submitted, and in fact, the first meeting of the COVID-19 Committee will be Friday, August 6, 2021,” Tooke-Rawlins wrote.

Landry sent several letters to the provost this summer, threatening legal action if the college did not change its vaccine requirement. Tooke-Rawlins said the medical school twice responded with minor changes to the policy but kept the vaccination requirement while allowing for exemptions that would be decided on Aug. 6 by the college’s COVID-19 committee.

It is simply time for the vaccine to no longer be used as a political issue but to be one recognized as a measure needed for public health and safety

– Dr. Dixie Tooke-Rawlins, provost of VCOM

The Louisiana Department of Health granted permission to VCOM to institute its COVID-19 vaccination requirement, according to the exhibits attached to Landry’s lawsuit.  

“The VCOM medical students will work at our community hospitals and rural hospitals in the surrounding area,” Tooke-Rawlins wrote in her emailed statement. “Physicians and VCOM students, as medical providers, also have no right to be a vector in spreading the virus or infecting the unknowing patients they will care for, who would naturally believe the students would be vaccinated.”

The medical school has three unvaccinated students in a student body of about 300. The school had informed the unvaccinated students that they might need to defer a portion of their clinical training to later in the year, the provost said. “VCOM has not been punitive to the students, has not ‘blackballed’ any student or made any such threats,” she wrote in her emailed statement.

The latest fourth surge of the coronavirus has hit Louisiana hard with a record-setting number of hospitalizations this week and nearly 5,000 new cases per day. Gov. John Bel Edwards cited the climbing numbers when he reinstated the statewide mask mandate Monday. Private organizations, such as businesses and hospitals, followed suit by mandating vaccinations among staff. Both Baton Rouge General and Our Lady of the Lake hospitals have instituted vaccination mandates for all staff, students, contractors and others. 

In apparent anticipation of the governor’s mask mandate, Landry distributed a memo to his own staff members earlier Monday that advised them on how to circumvent face mask mandates at public schools. Yet at the same time, he argues in the lawsuit that a mask mandate is a viable alternative to a vaccine mandate.

In her correspondence with Landry, Tooke-Rawlins wrote at-length about the dire situation posed by the virus as well as the extensive research and safety of the vaccines. Landry did not address those points, but in his lawsuit, he submitted an affidavit from a doctor in Ouachita Parish, Gregory C. Sampognaro, who claims — without citing any evidence or specifics — that the COVID-19 vaccines pose “known adverse health risks.” 

Sampognaro said he has refused to take the vaccine and is still allowed to treat patients at St. Francis Medical Center, Physicians and Surgeons Hospital in Monroe and Northeast Louisiana Medical Center in Ruston and Affinity Health Group. Sampognaro separately made headlines in 2019 for his alleged role in a $70 million illegal kickbacks scheme. He settled the case with the U.S. Department of Justice by agreeing to pay over $500,000 to resolve the allegations without admitting guilt. 

In her statement to the Illuminator, Tooke-Rawlins said the Federation of State Medical Licensing Boards (FSMB) announced that physicians may be sanctioned for making false statements or providing misinformation about the vaccine’s safety. 

“It is simply time for the vaccine to no longer be used as a political issue but to be one recognized as a measure needed for public health and safety,” she said.

And in a letter to Landry, she wrote that VCOM is working to educate their students “on the evidence-based medicine upon which our policies are based, so they make their decisions on medical evidence rather than misinformation.” At the end of her letter, Tooke-Rawlins addressed statements Landry apparently made during a radio interview in which he referred to the medical school’s president as a male and alleged he was unvaccinated.

“I heard your radio interview where you spoke of the President as a he and not vaccinated,” she wrote. “I am a woman and am fully vaccinated.” 

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Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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