When COVID-19 vaccines became widely available in the spring of 2021, some businesses announced that if employees wanted to keep their jobs, they'd have to get the jab.
Most people complied — but many did not.
The Mayo Clinic, New York City, United Airlines and many health care facilities nationwide were among the organizations that terminated employees who remained unvaccinated. Some law enforcement agencies also fired staffers who refused the vaccine — including the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD).
Joel Aylworth was among the SFPD officers who had to turn in their badges when they failed to comply with the vaccine mandate.
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"As a Christian, I don't believe in injecting biological substances into my blood," Aylworth told Fox News Digital in a phone interview.
Aylworth said he also believed that as a healthy man in his 30s, he was not at risk for the adverse effects of COVID.
"I focused on the data, which said this virus wasn't really killing people," he said. "People in my age group have a 99.9% survival rate without any vaccine."
As information continues to emerge today about COVID's lab origins, Aylworth said he stands by his decision.
"I’m proud that I aligned with my truth that day and moving forward," he said.
Aylworth, 40, was a third-generation police officer who originally wanted to join the FBI.
He opted to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps instead.
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When Aylworth was growing up in Fairfield, California, his father was the sheriff in the county where they lived. His grandfather worked with the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) in the 1950s through the 1970s.
Aylworth joined the Oakland Police Department in 2006. In 2013, he transferred to the SFPD, where he worked for more than eight years. He patrolled primarily in the Mission District and spent two years training veteran officers and recruits.
Life was good for Aylworth. He lived with his wife, Gina, and their two young sons in a house near his wife’s family in San Francisco.
He had a job he loved.
He just never expected that his 14-year career in law enforcement would end because of a vaccine mandate.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Aylworth was working full-time training officers at the San Francisco Police Academy.
"Right away, they shut down the Academy, and then because there were no recruits or anyone to train, the department realized they had all this extra personnel doing nothing," he said.
For a few weeks, Aylworth and some other officers, he said, were tasked with going downtown to the Tenderloin District and keeping homeless people from congregating — "because COVID supposedly spread very easily," he said.
Face masks were required for all officers, but the department only mandated tests for those who got COVID or who were in close contact with someone who did.
When COVID vaccines became available, the SFPD announced it would require the vax unless officers had a valid religious or medical exemption on file.
On Aug. 19, 2021, Aylworth filed for a religious exemption, he said.
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"Also, we knew as early as March 2021 that this vaccine did not protect against transmission," he added.
He also said he was not comfortable with the amount of research or the validity of the research into the effects and risks of the vaccine.
Aylworth's exemption was approved by the SFPD's human resources department, he said.
Less than a month later, on Sept. 16, he received an email informing him that his original exemption was no longer valid.
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"The department said it had some ‘secondary questions’ for me and the other 150 already approved exemptions — along with another 150 who had applied for exemptions and were waiting to be approved," Aylworth told Fox News Digital.
After answering the second round of questions, Aylworth said he received another letter noting that his religious exemption was no longer valid based on his latest responses.
"All 150 of us who were previously approved did not get approved this time around," he said. "Everyone in the department got denied."
When it was announced that all officers would have to get the vaccine or be fired, many of those whose exemptions were denied began to resign.
"Our group dwindled from 300 to about 40 who actually were willing to get terminated," said Aylworth.
"Compare that to somewhere like Los Angeles, which has a department of 10,000 cops and received 2,000 requested religious exemptions," he said. "The city threatened to fire them, too, but did nothing because they knew they couldn’t afford to lose 20% of their force, so they required weekly testing instead. SFPD did not offer testing or masking options like many neighboring cities and counties."
Upon his refusal to get the vaccine, Aylworth said he was placed on a 30-day administrative leave.
He shared with Fox News Digital the verbiage of the letter he received on this: "The health and well-being of City employees and the public we serve are top priorities during our emergency response to COVID-19. Your failure to comply with the vaccination requirement endangers the health and safety of the City's workforce and the public we serve. The City repeatedly notified you of this requirement. As a result of your non-vaccination status, you are unable to perform essential job functions."
After receiving one month of paid leave, Aylworth said he was then placed on administrative leave without pay.
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"The reason they justified not paying me during this time," he said, "is they were able to drum up an old City Charter code that said if an employee is a direct threat to the public, which apparently I was deemed, they would not pay me while being placed on admin leave."
Fox News Digital reached out to the San Francisco Police Department.
The department declined to offer comment about Officer Aylworth, "as it is a personnel matter," a spokesperson said.
The department did confirm, however, that "Officer Aylworth separated from SFPD on March 10, 2022."
Aylworth shared with Fox News Digital an excerpt from the SFPD's letter to him.
"San Francisco Charter §§ A8.341 and A8.344 state that the Department's sworn members can be placed on unpaid interim suspension for ‘acts which present an immediate danger to the public health and safety …’ I have concluded that your conduct in this matter falls into this category. I therefore intend to place you on interim suspension upon revocation of your paid leave. You will receive a separate notice of the effective date of the interim suspension. After that date, you shall no longer be on ‘paid’ administrative leave but shall be carried in an ‘unpaid’ capacity while awaiting a final decision regarding your separation hearing before the Police Commission."
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On March 15, 2022, the SFPD disarmed Aylworth and took away his star and ID card, he said.
He was issued a stay-away order from the department.
Then, on March 28, 2022, he was officially fired, he said.
"The ironic part is, after the onset of COVID, I worked until October 2021 — around one and a half years — without any vaccine, and I was deemed essential," Aylworth said.
"Then in October, I was suddenly deemed a ‘direct threat to the public’ — even though back in March 2021, we knew the vaccine offered no protection of transmission, but supposedly just lessened symptoms," he said.
At a hearing held in October 2021, the SFPD was due to present evidence of the claim that Aylworth was a "direct threat" to the public, he said — but they did not do that, he said.
"I’ve never been evaluated by a doctor to see if I’m carrying some infectious disease. I’ve never been tested for natural immunity or even asked," Aylworth also told Fox News Digital.
"The only evidence they provided at a so-called hearing was the emails they sent advising me to get the vaccine," he said.
"They checked my vaccine status in a portal they created for the city, and it said I was still unvaccinated. So, according to their standards, I was a threat and was fired."
Today, Aylworth and about 140 other employees are pursuing legal action against the city. He shared documentation to that effect with Fox News Digital.
"We are taking legal action for several factors, but the main one to highlight is the violation of our Title VII violations, which clearly state how religious exemptions should be handled," he said.
After what happened to him in San Francisco, Aylworth, his wife and their two sons (now 9 and 5) moved to Nampa, Idaho, he told Fox News Digital.
He left behind a career that he loved and a $200,000 annual salary.
To stay afloat, he said he liquidated his retirement accounts. He also incurred some hefty credit card debt, he said.
Even so, Aylworth does not regret refusing to get the COVID vaccine.
He admits that the situation was scary, especially since his wife home-schools their children and he is the family's sole income earner. Yet ultimately he feels at peace with his decision, he said.
"It requires courage to rise above and defend your rights, control your emotions and maintain a happy state of mind," Aylworth said.
"Most people follow the path of least resistance. They don’t want anything to interfere with their ease and comfort. But I believe it’s the times when you suffer that you actually grow."
"Despite all the financial stress and turmoil, I know I am being guided for bigger and better things."
Today, Aylworth is a life coach and holistic health coach, something he said he'd wanted to pursue ever since his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
He originally launched it as a side business back in 2014, but now he has the opportunity to devote himself to coaching full-time.
In October 2022, the New York State Supreme Court called for all public city employers to rehire anyone the city had terminated as a result of vaccine mandates. Massachusetts also offered to bring back some fired state employees. And many big companies, including Starbucks, Adidas and Intel, have dropped employee vaccination requirements.
Would Aylworth ever consider returning to police work if the SPFD offered to rehire him?
"I don't know right now," he answered. "I'll make that decision when the time comes. I do believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that life happens for you, not to you. Maybe this was a sign from the universe that it was time for me to go out and do something different and have even more impact on the world in a more positive way than police work could have ever afforded me."
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Perhaps most importantly, Aylworth said he is proud of the example he has set for his kids.
While they may not yet fully understand everything that happened, he said he takes comfort in the fact that he stood up for his beliefs.
"Because I know who I am and what I stand for, it makes it much easier for me to show up as a great father and role model," he said.
"This experience has taught them to not follow the crowd," he added — "and to always think for themselves."