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A Houston Hospital System Mandated The COVID-19 Vaccine. 117 Staffers Sued

Should employers be allowed to require COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S.? A group of 117 unvaccinated health care workers in Texas say no.

With the help of conservative activist and attorney Jared Woodfill, they are suing their employer, Houston Methodist, for its compulsory vaccination policy.

The mandate, they say, violates medical ethics standards known as the Nuremberg Code, which was created after World War II to prevent experimentation against human subjects — something the Nazis did to people in concentration camps.

The Food and Drug Administration has not granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but the drugs have gone through rigorous clinical trials and have been authorized for emergency use.

Health experts have continued to promote its proven safety as millions of Americans continue to get vaccinated, sending virus infection rates plummeting.

Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who is the lead plaintiff, says the workers on the lawsuit need more time before getting the vaccine. They want full FDA approval and more research before they seek COVID-19 immunization.

Moderna and Pfizer have both applied for approval. But Bridges says if it’s granted “any time soon,” she will not get the shot without more long-term data.

Bridges claims that she has witnessed patients and coworkers experience “adverse reactions from mild to severe” such as blood clots and hemorrhaging after inoculation, though she would not provide specifics. Experts say such claims do not reflect the numerous safety studies published on the vaccines.

COVID-19 vaccines have common side effects, including headaches, chills and tiredness. Around 30 people out of nearly 9 million who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine experienced blood clots.

To date, nearly 600,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus.

“We’re hearing from a disgruntled employee who is spreading significant amounts of misinformation,” says Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist. “Hundreds of millions of these vaccines have been given … and we’ve seen these vaccines to be amazingly safe.”

Bridges says some nurses are “scared” to report side effects, fearing retaliation from Houston Methodist’s leadership.

“That’s absolute nonsense and, quite frankly, offensive,” Boom says. “Where we would see any potential issue, we will report that. Where we don’t see any potential issues, of course, there wouldn’t be anything reported.”

Health care providers are required by law to report post-vaccination health problems to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Reports may be filed anonymously.

Houston Methodist requires staffers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in order to meet their bottom line — to keep patients safe.

“We have this gift of science, of these vaccines, that enables us to exit the pandemic and enables us to keep our patients’ safety first,” Boom says. “And we’re very proud of our employees who, by and large, have done that.”

Out of the 26,000 Houston Methodist system employees, 99% of workers have complied with the vaccine policy, he says. If an employee doesn’t want to take the vaccine, Boom says that’s their right — but by June 7, unvaccinated workers will be suspended without pay for two weeks.

After that, Boom says “they will have to seek employment elsewhere.”

The federal government recently updated vaccine guidance for employers, saying they could require staff members who are physically entering a workplace to be vaccinated. They must accommodate employees with disabilities or religious concerns.

Boom says Houston Methodist is on “solid legal ground” in their case against Bridges and the other plaintiffs. Management looked at the legal and operational issues before making a thoughtful, data-driven decision to enforce a vaccine policy, he says.

“The vaccines are safe,” he says. “We looked at the ethics and said, ‘yes, this is the right ethical thing as health care professionals to protect our patients.’ ”

Vaccine hesitancy among health care professionals is not uncommon in the U.S. even though they have the training to understand science and they have seen firsthand how destructive this disease has been.

It’s “disappointing” to see an “organized, very cynical approach to undermine vaccinations” take off over the last quarter of a century, Boom says. It’s also disheartening to see people dismiss science, he says.

As for the health care employees on the lawsuit, their argument is laced with “anti-vaccination rhetoric,” Boom argues.

“Ultimately, those individuals are not following, frankly, the tenets of their profession,” he says, “which is to put patients first and to trust in the medical knowledge that has advanced so much over the century to result in life expectancy for all of us that’s tremendously higher than it used to be.”

Dean Russell produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Trees and shrubs line the street in front of Methodist Hospital in Houston's Medical Center in 2012. (Pat Sullivan/AP)
Trees and shrubs line the street in front of Methodist Hospital in Houston's Medical Center in 2012. (Pat Sullivan/AP)