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Judge dismisses lawsuit filed by Houston hospital system employees who refused coronavirus vaccine

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A federal judge on Saturday dismissed a lawsuit filed by 117 staffers at Houston Methodist over the hospital system’s coronavirus vaccine requirement for employees, a decision that could have implications in other battles over such mandates.

The hospital system was among the first in the country to require all workers to be inoculated against the virus, which has killed about 600,000 people in the United States. More than 99 percent of its 26,000-strong workforce complied. But a small fraction refused, and chief executive Marc Boom said Tuesday that more than 170 employees had been suspended as a result.

Among them was Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who became the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit over the vaccine requirement after months of publicly opposing it. The complaint, filed last month, argued that the mandate is unlawful and forces “employees to be human ‘guinea pigs’ as a condition for continued employment.”

But U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes rejected that argument. In his ruling, he said the lawsuit’s claim that the vaccines are experimental and dangerous “is false, and it is also irrelevant.” The hospital system’s requirement does not violate state or federal law or public policy, he wrote.

The judge took particular issue with the complaint equating the mandate to medical experimentation during the Holocaust, calling the comparison “reprehensible.”

“Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the covid-19 virus,” Hughes wrote. “It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a covid-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.”

The lawsuit’s dismissal appears to be one of the first rulings over an issue that has sparked contentious debate across the country as the economy opens up and more people return to school and work. Legal experts expect further litigation as some business, hospitals and universities begin requiring vaccination.

Valerie Gutmann Koch, co-director of the University of Houston’s Health Law & Policy Institute, called the decision “another step in demonstrating the legality of these mandates, particularly in a health crisis like this.”

“There isn’t much there to rely on to argue these mandates should be illegal,” she said.

The three coronavirus vaccines used in the United States have not received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, but they have been authorized for emergency use following rigorous clinical trials. As of Sunday, more than 173 million people had received at least one dose of the vaccine in the United States, representing just over 52 percent of the nation’s population.

Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, characterized the lawsuit’s claims as “absurd” in recent remarks to The Washington Post, noting that tens of thousands of people participated in the vaccine trials. The suit also repeats misinformation circulated widely online about the shots altering DNA.

Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Gypsyamber D'Souza explains how the U.S. can reach coronavirus herd immunity and what happens if that goal is missed. (Video: Brian Monroe, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

The inoculations are seen as key to a return to normalcy, yet most employers have shied away from mandating them, concerned about the thorny politics and previously untested legal issues. Colleges and universities, along with Houston Methodist and a handful of other health-care institutions, are the exception.

Koch said the ruling shows “employer mandates of the covid-19 vaccine, particularly in the health care arena, are absolutely legal.” She said she expects to see more legal battles around vaccination mandates but noted she has “always predicted that they have very thin legal legs to stand on.”

There is precedent for vaccine requirements, she said, such as when health-care institutions require vaccinations during particularly bad flu seasons. Koch said she was “encouraged by the fact that this was dismissed as quickly and expeditiously as it was.”

Veronica Vargas Stidvent, executive director at the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, said the ruling is based on employment law in Texas, so the extent to which it sets a precedent for other jurisdictions is not clear.

“At least here in Texas, under this ruling, it’s pretty clear employers can require employees to get vaccinated,” she said.

Bridges, who previously worked in Houston Methodist’s covid unit, told The Post last month that she has willingly submitted to “every vaccine known to man.” But she insists the coronavirus vaccines need further study.

In an interview with USA Today following her lawsuit’s dismissal, Bridges said she was not surprised by the judge’s decision. The nurse, who has raised more than $100,000 for her legal battle on GoFundMe, said she would not give up despite the case being thrown out.

“We knew this was going to be a huge fight,” she said, “and we are prepared to fight it.”

Jared Woodfill, the Houston-area attorney and conservative activist who filed the suit, said he plans to appeal the ruling, repeating the complaint’s claim that the vaccine requirement forces employees to serve as guinea pigs. He said in written comments that he believes the hospital system will ultimately “be held accountable for their conduct.”

In a statement released by the hospital system, Boom said the judge’s decision meant Houston Methodist “can now put this behind us and continue our focus on unparalleled safety, quality, service and innovation.”

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