Houston Hospital Set to Suspend Unvaccinated Staff After Judge Refuses to Intervene

Employment lawyers are closely watching the case that they say is the first challenging a private employer’s Covid-19 vaccination mandate for its staff.

Houston Methodist Hospital in downtown Houston, Texas. (Image by F. Muhammad from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

HOUSTON (CN) — More than 100 employees of a Houston hospital system will be suspended Tuesday for rejecting its directive they get vaccinated against Covid-19, after a federal judge refused to block the company from enforcing the vaccination deadline.

With more than 26,000 employees, Houston Methodist operates eight hospitals, an academic research institute and numerous physical therapy clinics in Greater Houston.

On March 31, it became the first major health care system in the U.S. to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations for all its employees.

Houston Methodist required managers to get at least one Covid shot by April 15. A week later, more than 84% of its staff had been vaccinated against the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to its CEO Dr. Marc Boom.

“Mandating the vaccine was not a decision we made lightly. … Because science has proven that the Covid-19 vaccines are not only safe, but extremely effective, it became an easier decision to make,” Boom wrote in an April letter to staff.

But 10 days before the June 7 deadline for nonmanagerial staff to be vaccinated, 116 employees sued Houston Methodist, claiming it is “forcing its employees to be human ‘guinea pigs’ as a condition for continued employment” because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet decided whether to license Covid-19 vaccines developed by Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson. It has only authorized them for emergency use.

They say while Houston Methodist is allowing exemptions from the policy on medical or religious grounds, it is arbitrarily denying exemption requests.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults, 162 million, have received at least one dose. The only health scare in the rollout came when a small group of women developed blood clots after receiving the J&J vaccine. This led federal regulators to suspend administration of the vaccine for several weeks, but they gave the one-dose shot the green light again starting April 23 after determining its benefits outweigh its risks.

Despite the consensus by health scientists the vaccines approved by the federal government are safe and effective, lead plaintiff Jennifer Bridges claims in her lawsuit, “There were 4,434 death reports and over 12,619 serious injuries reported to the CDC’s VAERS [Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System] database from Covid-19 vaccines through May 10, 2021.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, its review of death certificates, autopsy and medical records “has not established a causal link to Covid-19 vaccines” and deaths of people after they received the shots. The agency has acknowledged there is a plausible causal link between the J&J shot and blood clots that killed three women.

Bridges sued Houston Methodist in Texas state court and the case was transferred to Houston federal court.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes on Friday denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order to block the hospital system from suspending them. The ruling was released by the court on Monday.

Hughes, a Ronald Reagan appointee, found the public’s interest in having a hospital system capable of caring for patients during a pandemic far outweighs protecting the vaccination preferences of 116 employees.

“The plaintiffs are not just jeopardizing their own health; they are jeopardizing the health of doctors, nurses, support staff, patients and their families,” Hughes wrote.

Under Houston Methodist’s policy, all nonmanagerial employees who do not receive at least one dose by Monday will be placed on a two-week unpaid suspension starting Tuesday.

If they don’t get a Covid shot by June 21, Houston Methodist says it will fire them.

The hospital system said the suspensions will not reduce its staffing levels. We planned ahead and already have staff in place to fill these positions,” spokeswoman Stefanie Asin said in an email.

Refuting the employees’ claims Houston Methodist is arbitrarily denying exemption requests, Asin said, “We have a thorough process for these requests and have provided medical and religious exemptions as well as deferrals for pregnant women.”

In her lawsuit, Bridges compares Houston Methodist’s policy to Nazi doctors doing medical experiments, including trying out vaccines for malaria, jaundice, smallpox and cholera, on people in concentration camps during World War II.

Bridges says the right not to be forced to participate in a vaccine trial was established by the Nuremberg Code of 1947, a medical ethics doctrine handed down by a group of judges in a verdict following the trial of 20 German doctors accused of doing experiments on, and participating in mass murders of, prisoners of Nazi concentration camps.

Texas is an at-will employment state, meaning an employer can fire an employee at any time, for any reason, without providing justification.

But Bridges says her claims fall under an exception the Texas Supreme Court established with its 1985 decision in Sabine Pilot Service Inc. v. Hauck, allowing employees to sue if the only reason they were fired is for their refusal to do an illegal act.

She also contends Houston Methodist’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate violates a federal law governing authorization of using medical products in emergencies. “That law states that where a medical product is ‘unapproved’ then no one may be mandated to take it,” the complaint states.

Employment lawyers are closely watching the case that they say is the first challenging a private employer’s Covid-19 vaccination mandate for its staff.

Bridges is represented by Houston attorney Jared Woodfill. He did not respond Monday to emailed questions about the case.

After denying the Methodist employees’ request for an injunction, Judges Hughes appears ready to dispose of the lawsuit. He issued another order authorizing Houston Methodist to file a motion to dismiss by Tuesday and scheduled a hearing for Friday.

The Texas Nurses Association said it understands the plaintiffs’ concerns about the emergency-use status of the vaccines, but it recommends all nurses get vaccinated if they don’t have medical issues that make it inadvisable.

“We respect that employers have a duty to maintain a safe workspace and provide the best care possible for their patients, which may include lowering the risk that employees could contract or transmit Covid. Nurses who are truly concerned about their safety may find employment in settings where immunizations are not required,” its communications director Kanaka Sathasivan said.

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