More than 100 staff members at Houston Methodist Hospital who were fired for refusing to get vaccinated for COVID-19 appealed a judge’s ruling that sided with the hospital’s right to terminate their employment.
“We are going to most likely go all the way up to the Supreme Court,” Jennifer Bridges, a registered nurse and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by 117 former employees of the hospital, told Yahoo News.
Health care facilities across the country routinely require their employees to be vaccinated for a host of viruses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes on its website, including the coronavirus.
“It is our responsibility to prevent ourselves from getting ill and from spreading the disease to others,” Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, told Yahoo News. “This should not be a choice that individual providers are able to make when this is actually about our job, our oath, the responsibility that we signed up for to care for our most vulnerable patients.”
Jennifer Bridges speaks at an anti-vaccine rally outside Houston Methodist Hospital in June. (Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)
Bridges is one of 153 workers who were fired or resigned from Houston Methodist last Monday after refusing to comply with the hospital’s vaccine mandate, the Texas Tribune reported. The hospital system — comprising nearly 25,000 employees — was one of the first employers in the country to require COVID-19 vaccinations for its workers, announcing its policy on April 1.
Yet despite rigorous trials involving tens of thousands of people and overwhelming research that proves the three emergency FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing the spread of the disease as well as death from it, some medical workers remain skeptical.
“I’m not anti-vax. I’ve had all my other vaccines, but this one was rushed and it didn’t have the proper research,” Bridges said, adding, “I would rather take my chances rather than get the shot.”
Since instituting its policy requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Houston Methodist has been unwavering in its stance.
“Our decision to mandate the COVID vaccine for all of our employees was not made lightly and is based on the proven science that the vaccines are not only safe, but extremely effective,” Amy Rose, a spokesperson for Houston Methodist, told Becker’s Healthcare in May. “As healthcare workers, we’ve taken a sacred oath to do everything possible to keep our patients safe and healthy.”
Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital in Baytown, Texas. (Francois Picard/AFP via Getty Images)
Last month, a federal judge dismissed Bridges’s initial lawsuit against the hospital, in which she claimed the hospital had forced staffers to be “guinea pigs” for vaccines.
“This is not coercion,” U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote in his dissent on June 12. “Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer.”
Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom applauded the ruling in a statement. “We can now put this behind us and continue our focus on unparalleled safety, quality, service and innovation,” the statement read.
In an internal memo sent to employees on June 8 that was shared with Yahoo News, Boom thanked employees for helping the hospital get through a difficult time.
“Since I announced this mandate in April, Houston Methodist has been challenged by the media, some outspoken employees and even sued,” he wrote in the memo. “As the first hospital system to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, we were prepared for this. The criticism is sometimes the price we pay for leading medicine.”
A COVID-19 vaccination. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
More than 156 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of July 2, according to the CDC data tracker. Only a tiny fraction of people who have been vaccinated experience “breakthrough cases.”
“There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from COVID-19,” the CDC site reads. “Like with other vaccines, vaccine breakthrough cases will occur, even though the vaccines are working as expected.”
As of Friday afternoon, more than 33 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and more than 602,000 have died from the disease. In Texas, more than 2.9 million people have tested positive for the virus and 52,000 have died from it.
Those statistics have not motivated some medical professionals to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Freenea Stewart is another former employee at Houston Methodist who was fired for defying the hospital’s vaccine policy.
An anti-vaccine rally at Houston Methodist Hospital. (Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)
“This isn’t about my job,” Stewart, a former charge nurse, told Yahoo News. “This is about you saying we have to get this vaccine. [In the hospital] you could cut the tension with a knife, between those who were vaccinated and those who weren’t.”
Stewart was terminated on June 21 even though she contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. She believes the antibodies she gained from the illness should have been enough to exempt her from vaccination, and she questions why the hospital didn’t allow her to keep her job.
“I want my body to use its immune system to work. That’s the best antibody to give,” she said, before echoing a frequent refrain from those skeptical of vaccines. “There is not enough information about the vaccine yet. … My body has no idea what is in that shot.”
Like many Republican lawmakers, Stewart believes that an individual’s right to decide whether to get vaccinated outweighs considerations of public health.
“Everyone needs to do what they think is best for them and their right to choose,” she said. “In the United States we have freedom of choice. That is what makes the United States so amazing.”
A young anti-vaxxer participates in a rally at Houston Methodist. (Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images)
But for other medical professionals, freedom of choice has its limits, especially during a pandemic.
Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician in Washington, D.C., who also serves as a health policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, says she is not surprised by the reluctance of some health care workers to get vaccinated.
“Health professionals are humans too. This is a reflection of what people in America think — that the trials were not enough and they don’t want to be experiments,” Patel said. “Having said that, I think health professionals have an incredible responsibility to their patients, and ignoring the large body of clinical trial data, as well as real-world evidence, is the height of selfish irresponsibility.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images, Francois Picard/AFP via Getty Images
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