Jennifer Bridges, a registered nurse in Houston, is steadfast in her belief that it’s wrong for her employer to force hospital workers like her to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or say goodbye to their jobs. But it’s a losing legal argument so far.
In a crushing defeat, a federal judge bluntly ruled over the weekend that if the employees of the Houston Methodist Hospital System didn’t like him, they could go and work elsewhere.
“Methodist is trying to do its job of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to ensure the safety of staff, patients and their families. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; However, if she refuses, she will simply have to work elsewhere, ”wrote US District Judge Lynn Hughes, dismissing a lawsuit filed by 117 Houston Methodist workers, including Bridges, regarding the vaccine requirement.
Saturday’s ruling in the closely watched legal case on how far healthcare facilities can go to protect patients and others from the coronavirus is said to be the first of its kind in the United States. But that will not be the end of the debate.
Bridges said she and the others will take their case to the United States Supreme Court if they have to: “This is just the start. We’re going to fight for quite a while. “
And other hospital systems across the country, including Washington, DC, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and most recently New York, have followed the Houston Methodist and have been pushed back as well.
Legal experts say these vaccine requirements, especially in the face of a public health crisis, are likely to continue to be upheld in court as long as employers provide reasonable exemptions, including for medical conditions or religious objections. .
Methodist employees in Houston compared their situation to medical experiments performed on unintentional victims in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The judge called the comparison “objectionable” and said the claims made in the lawsuit that the vaccines are experimental and dangerous are false.
“These people are not imprisoned. They are not tied. They are just being asked to get vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable in hospitals and other health care settings, ”said Valerie Gutmann Koch, assistant professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center.
Bridges is one of 178 Methodist workers in Houston who were suspended without pay on June 8 and will be fired if they do not agree to be vaccinated by June 22.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System, Philadelphia’s largest private employer, and the New York Presbyterian Hospital System have also indicated that employees who are not fully immunized will lose their jobs.
Houston Methodist’s decision in April made it the first major U.S. healthcare system to require COVID-19 vaccinations for workers. Many hospitals across the country, including the Houston Methodist, already need other types of vaccines, including the flu.
Houston Methodist President and CEO Marc Boom said nearly 25,000 of the system’s more than 26,000 workers have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“You did the right thing. You protected our patients, your colleagues, your families and our community. Science proves that vaccines are not only safe but necessary if we are to overcome COVID-19”, Boom said in a statement to employees.
But Bridges, 39, and Kara Shepherd, 38, another nurse who is part of the lawsuit, say they are not confident in the safety of the vaccine. They say they have seen patients and colleagues have severe reactions and there is insufficient knowledge about its long-term effects.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that although a small number of health problems have been reported, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and very effective.
The two Bridges, who worked 6 and a half years in the medical-surgical inpatient unit at Houston Methodist Hospital in the suburb of Baytown, and Shepherd, who worked 7 and a half years in the work unit and childbirth from a Methodist hospital in Houston, say they are not anti-vaccine, conspiracy theorists, and not making a political statement.
“For me it ultimately comes down to freedom,” Shepherd said.
Their lawyer, Jared Woodfill, said the hospital system does not allow its workers to make their own health care decisions.
Indiana University Health, Indiana’s largest hospital system, requires all of its employees to be fully immunized by September 1. So far, just over 60% of its 34,000 employees have been vaccinated, spokesman Jeff Swiatek said.
Some Indianapolis employees protested the demand on Saturday.
Kasey Ladig, an intensive care nurse and outpatient coordinator in the bone marrow transplant unit at IU Health, said she quit the job she loved the day the policy was announced.
“I would like to hear something other than, ‘We trust the science,’” Ladig said. “It was a huge red flag. I didn’t feel comfortable getting it.
Hospital workers and others have argued that such requirements are illegal because COVID-19 vaccines are distributed under an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration and have not received final approval from the FDA. But Koch said emergency use doesn’t mean people are experienced, and added that FDA approval is pending.
Allison K. Hoffman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said Methodist employees in Houston claimed they were being used as human guinea pigs or that the vaccine policy violated the Nuremberg Code, a set of rules for the medical experiments which were developed in the wake of the Nazi atrocities, “border on the absurd”.
To avoid such fights, many employers offer vaccination incentives.
Instead of requiring vaccines, the small health care system in Jackson, Wyoming, offered bonuses of $ 600 to employees who got vaccinated before the end of May. This increased vaccinations from 73% to 82% of the 840 employees at St. John’s Health, spokeswoman Karen Connelly said.
Bridges and Shepherd said that while the expected loss of their job has resulted in financial worries, they have no regrets.
“We’re all proud of our decision because we stood firm and didn’t do something against our will just for a paycheck,” Bridges said.
Melley reported from Los Angeles.