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178 hospital workers suspended for not complying with coronavirus vaccination policy

Houston-based system sidelines holdouts for two weeks without pay

People protest the Houston Methodist medical system's vaccine requirements Monday in Baytown, Tex. (Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle/AP)

A Houston-based hospital system suspended more than 170 health-care workers who did not comply with the organization’s vaccine mandate, the system’s CEO said Tuesday, a day after employees protested the requirement outside a medical center.

While 24,947 of Houston Methodist’s employees were fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus by Monday’s deadline, 178 employees did not get fully vaccinated and were suspended without pay for two weeks, Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom wrote in an internal message that the system shared with The Washington Post.

“Of these employees, 27 have received one dose of vaccine, so I am hopeful they will get their second doses soon,” Boom wrote. “I know that today may be difficult for some who are sad about losing a colleague who’s decided to not get vaccinated,” he added. “We only wish them well and thank them for their past service to our community, and we must respect the decision they made.”

Meanwhile, 285 employees received a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine, and 332 employees were granted deferrals for pregnancy or other reasons, Boom said.

The CEO in March called on Houston Methodist staffers to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, saying the health system needed to set an example and protect patients. The policy drew attacks from conservative media and prompted legal threats, including a lawsuit from more than 100 of the system’s staffers, led by a nurse who worked in the coronavirus unit and insisted that vaccines needed further study.

On Monday, dozens of medical workers gathered outside a Texas hospital to protest the policy.

“Vaxx is Venom,” read one of the signs. “Don’t Lose Sight of Our Rights,” read another sign held by one among dozens of supporters who rallied at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital in Baytown, Tex.

Starting in April, the system began requiring vaccination for all its employees in more than a dozen of its locations across Texas, saying it was the first in the nation to take such a step. Those who did not provide proof of vaccination by June 7 — or who had not applied by early April for an exemption based on “medical condition (including pregnancy deferment) or sincerely held religious belief” — were to face suspension without pay for two weeks, according to a hospital memo.

If the employees do not prove vaccination or have an exemption by June 21, they will be subject to “employment termination,” the memo said.

Some of the employees have said the order is an infringement on their rights.

“No one should be forced to put something into their body if they’re not comfortable with it,” said Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who has worked for Houston Methodist for more than six years and has protested mandatory vaccination policies for months. Bridges was one of those who had been suspended, the Texan reported.

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“We fully support the right of our employees to peacefully gather on their own time,” Gale Smith, a Houston Methodist spokesperson, said in an statement sent to The Washington Post this week.

Bridges had refused to comply, objecting because the vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States have not been “fully” approved by the Food and Drug Administration — a process that generally involves two years of clinical trials to assess side effects.

“I’m not anti-vaccine. I’ve had every vaccine known to man, except this one,” Bridges told The Post in May, adding that she and like-minded colleagues wanted to be able to decline care. “As nurses and medical staff, everybody feels like you should have a right to choose what you put in your body.”

Boom and outside experts have countered that the vaccines are safe and effective, citing the growing body of data on their protective effects.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the federal government does not mandate vaccination, it has also stated that “for some healthcare workers or essential employees, a state or local government or employer, for example, may require or mandate that workers be vaccinated as a matter of state or other law.”

Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces work discrimination laws, said employers can require the vaccines.

Bridges and 116 other Houston Methodist employees sued the hospital system last month, after it made vaccination a condition of employment. The lawsuit, filed in a state court, has moved to a federal court.

“We will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court,” Bridges told the Texan on Monday. “This is wrongful termination and a violation of our rights.”

The lawsuit says Houston Methodist’s vaccine requirement violates medical ethics standards known as the Nuremberg Code, which was designed to prevent experimentation on humans who do not consent to it.

It also states that Methodist is forcing its employees to be human “guinea pigs” as a condition for continued employment,” arguing that the mandate “requires the employee to subject themselves to medical experimentation as a prerequisite to feeding their families.”

Bridges, like many other nurses and health workers refusing vaccines, has denied being an anti-vaxxer in interviews with several media outlets, and says she has received vaccinations for other diseases.

She is among the millions of Americans refusing vaccinations, citing a range of concerns and motives including what they say was a rushed process for authorizing the vaccine, a lack of comprehensive data of potential side effects, and an affront to individual freedoms. Some say government officials have concealed information about severe cases of negative reaction to the vaccine, though there is no evidence to support such allegations.

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Such concern was echoed by Angelina Farella — a pediatrician and member of America’s Frontline Doctors, a conservative group that has opposed mandating the experimental coronavirus vaccines — who joined the protesters Monday.

In comments to local media covering the protest, Farella said vaccine promoters are minimizing data of cases of serious adverse reactions to the inoculation, which she said have in some cases led to death. Health officials have repeatedly stated that cases of severe reactions to the vaccine are rare.

According to the CDC, more than 285 million doses of vaccines against the novel coronavirus, which causes the illness covid-19, were administered from Dec. 14 through May 24. During that span, the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting Systems (VAERS) received 4,863 reports of death (0.0017 percent) among people who received a coronavirus vaccine, which does not necessarily mean the vaccine was a direct cause of death.

Vaccination reluctance among health workers has remained high in Texas and across the nation.

A Gallup poll conducted in May found that 24 percent of U.S. adults do not plan to be vaccinated for various reasons, including worry that the vaccines were not safe.

A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, conducted from late February to mid-March, found that nearly half of front-line health-care workers said they were not vaccinated. More than 1 in 3 said they were not confident that vaccines were sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness, the report said.

In Texas, the issue led the legislature to draft a bill to penalize businesses or government entities that require proof of vaccination from their customers. The measure, signed into law Monday by Gov. Greg Abbott (R), also established that businesses requiring customers to be vaccinated will be denied state contracts and could lose their licenses or operating permits.

Joseph Varon, chief of staff at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, said he has seen vaccination reluctance among his staff, especially at the beginning of the rollout when, he said, almost 40 percent of the hospital’s nurses refused to get vaccinated because of political reasons or fears of side effects.

“It is a serious issue that health professionals have this attitude,” Varon said. “You would expect it from other conservative groups, not from health workers.”

Although he wants all front-line workers to be vaccinated, Varon said, forcing them to do so may backfire.

“It is not a question of whether they should be vaccinated or not,” he said. “The tricky part is how you get people to do it.”

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