Zoe Berg

It is a brisk Saturday morning in November, and Rob and Jennifer Frost sit at a table in Louise’s Homemade Food and Baked Goods. Coffee steams behind the cashier’s counter and bright red curtains filter light into the small restaurant nestled in a West Haven strip mall. Rob Frost clutches a simple black notebook containing a single piece of paper, folded in half. The letter reveals that he seeks an exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine — or as he calls it, the COVID injection — due to the lack of a “long-term study on this type of vaccine.”

A lifelong hockey fan, Frost worked as the athletic trainer, or the unofficial “go-to person for anything medical” for the Yale men’s hockey team before his termination in July 2021. Frost, who has remained skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine since its initial distribution in the United States in December 2020, was terminated from his job when his exemption request was rejected by the University on Aug. 3, 2021.

Few at Yale share the Frosts’ vaccine skepticism. The University has a 99.7 percent vaccination rate for undergraduate students and a 93.2 percent vaccination rate for staff. For the 2021-22 school year, the University mandated that all staff have a COVID-19 vaccine or a University-approved medical or religious exemption.

However, Yale still allowed employees with University-approved strongly held personal belief exemptions to hold their jobs in summer 2021. After Rob Frost’s personal belief exemption was rejected and his job was terminated, his wife Jennifer Frost, an independent college consultant, wrote to President Peter Salovey’s office. She said Salovey himself didn’t respond. The seemingly inadequate response was from someone else in the president’s office “[saying] ‘Oh, we understand you’re upset.’” The Frosts paid $1,500 for an attorney, recommended to them by other people challenging the vaccine mandate on a Facebook group called Connecticut Residents Against Medical Mandates, or CTRAMM. The group would later write a letter on Frost’s behalf asking for his job back or some form of severance. They never received a response.

At the same time, Yale granted vaccine exemption requests based on perhaps even more extreme ideologies. In the summer of 2021, Yale student Kendall Cote NUR ’23 submitted a religious belief exemption request to the University with the support of the Connecticut lawyer and self-identified “general hell-raiser” Cameron Atkinson. According to a blog post written by Atkinson, Cote requested this exemption on the grounds that “currently available COVID-19 vaccines were either manufactured with cells derived from an aborted fetus or tested using cells derived from an aborted fetus.”

Atkinson wrote that his client could not receive the vaccine without “violating her conscience.” He also described the University’s COVID-19 policies as “boneheaded, bigoted, and discriminatory.”

Yale granted her the exemption.

This is despite the fact that even the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an “extremist” anti-abortion group, found the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines ethically uncontroversial since fetal cell cultures are not necessary to produce these vaccines. Though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine does use fetal cell cultures to produce and manufacture the vaccine, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission both found that receiving the J&J vaccine “morally acceptable.”

For Rob Frost, “it seemed random who was getting denied” and accepted.

“I do not consent to being a part of this experiment,” Frost wrote in his vaccine exemption request. “I strongly believe that every citizen has the right to choose medical intervention and it should not be forced upon any person through means of coercion or threat of job loss. Medical tyranny and manipulation is never OK.”

Frost said Yale has not helped with his job search after terminating his employment. He said he declined a custodial job the University suggested to him by Yale Human Resources. While he hopes to stay in athletic training, with all his qualifications, skills and experience, he feels “a lot of places won’t even look at you without the vaccination.” As such, he’s taking “sort of a pause.”

The Frosts, who have four children, say they became skeptical of the U.S. health care system after they sought treatment for one of their daughter’s Type 1 diabetes. When Rob Frost’s job with Yale fell through last summer, Jennifer Frost used what she called her mom’s instinct to spend her “every day off, either getting [medical supplies] for our daughter or fighting with insurance.”

The Frosts are not unique in their skepticism. In a recent Gallup poll, only 23 percent of Americans held “a great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in the American health care system.

The Frosts, along with other medical skeptics, have found a support network on social media. Jennifer Frost is a member of CTRAMM. It is “a total grassroots organization,” she told me, “a group of people seeing how they can support each other.” This right-wing group, self-described as founded to preserve and protect peoples’ vaccine exemptions at work, school and daycare, fights against mandatory vaccination. After accusing Facebook of “C€nsoRsh!p” it has since moved to encrypted networks such as Telegram, a messaging app, and the Mighty Network, an app that connects people by shared interests. Both are favored by right-wing groups for their lack of regulation, after Big Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter worked to curb misinformation on their sites by deleting offending accounts. CTRAMM’s slate of planned events included an ice cream social on Nov. 20, 2021 for “kids who have been inappropriately disciplined for unconstitutional mask mandates,” per a post on Facebook.

The Frosts have not only found online communities like CTRAMM sympathetic to their COVID-19 vaccine skepticism, but also found degrees of support from their homeschool community and church.

Jennifer Frost recounted her frustration when their son joined a recreational hockey team that required the players be vaccinated or receive regular testing. The Frosts were frustrated with these additional requirements for their unvaccinated son to remain playing with the team.

“What kid is going to want to deal with that, like, scarlet letter [of being unvaccinated and set apart from their peers] on their face?” she asked. “Now you’re pitting a kid against their parent, who’s in charge of their medical and health decisions.”

Frost told me that he is also skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines because he believes the vaccine might cause myocarditis, a rare inflammation of the heart.

“[Myocarditis linked to the COVID-19 vaccine is] very rare. But it does happen. It’s not widely published, because I think mainstream media doesn’t want to sound alarms or anything, but you can definitely find [afflicted] boys who are getting vaccinated between the ages of 12 and 18,” Frost said.

Scott Roberts, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine and associate medical director for infection prevention, while acknowledging these rare cases of myocarditis, emphasized that people are more likely to contract myocarditis from contracting COVID-19 than from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Frost gathers much of his COVID-19 information from the Center for Disease Prevention and Control’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting, or VAERS, website, a database that compiles reports of patients’ adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine, among others. He also cites Twitter and Robert Malone, a medical doctor and infectious-disease researcher suspended from Twitter for spreading vaccine misinformation, as sources of his COVID-19 information.

The VAERS website warns that its wealth of data may contain “incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable” evidence and that it should be interpreted in the context of other scientific information — not used to make a claim about the “existence, severity, frequency, or rates” of problems associated with the COVID-19 vaccine.  The website provides a guide to interpreting its data and warns that some reported side effects of the vaccine may be coincidental, but these disclaimers have not stopped COVID-19 skeptics from plumbing the site for evidence.

Regardless of Frost and Cote’s summer 2021 objections, Yale University updated its COVID-19 vaccination policy on Nov. 17, 2021, in order to comply with President Biden’s contested Executive Order 14042. The new policy states that “faculty and staff who previously obtained a strongly held personal belief exemption must either be fully vaccinated or have received a university-approved medical or religious exemption by January 18, 2022.” Anyone who does not comply with the policy will receive “progressive discipline.”

“Yale has done a fantastic job … ultimately, I think, by forcing decisions, when there is not a true medical reason to be unvaccinated,” said Howard Forman, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, who wholeheartedly approved of the University’s COVID-19 policy. “By working with people, I think Yale did a lot of the heavy lifting [of enforcing vaccination] on their own without having a federal mandate in place.”

COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective and significantly reduce one’s risk of severe illness. More than 250 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine safely and COVID-19 vaccines are over 80 percent effective against hospitalization. It is clear that the benefits of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine far outweigh the costs, given that almost 840,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States alone.

Though the Frosts, now apart from Yale University, maintain that they are “looking for reasons to say yes [to the vaccine],” they have not found such a reason yet. Rob Frost is taking a pause from athletic training and trying to plan for the future as COVID-19 cases and fatalities surge in Connecticut.

Charlotte Hughes reports on climate and environmental issues in New Haven. Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, she is a freshman in Branford College majoring in English.