HOUSTON — Jennifer Bridges, a registered nurse in Houston, is steadfast in her belief that it's wrong for her employer to force hospital workers like her to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or say goodbye to their jobs. But that's a losing legal argument so far.
In a stinging defeat, a federal judge bluntly ruled over the weekend that if employees of the Houston Methodist hospital system don't like it, they can go work elsewhere.
"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. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else," U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote in dismissing a lawsuit filed by 117 Houston Methodist workers, including Bridges, over the vaccine requirement.
The ruling Saturday in the closely watched legal case over how far health care institutions can go to protect patients and others against the coronavirus is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. But it won't be the end of the debate.
Bridges said she and the others will take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court if they have to: "This is only the beginning. We are going to be fighting for quite a while."
And other hospital systems around the country, including in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and most recently New York, have followed Houston Methodist and have also gotten pushback.
Legal experts say such vaccine requirements, particularly in a public health crisis, will probably continue be upheld in court as long as employers provide reasonable exemptions, including for medical conditions or religious objections.
The Houston Methodist employees likened their situation to medical experiments performed on unwilling victims in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The judge called that comparison "reprehensible" and said claims made in the lawsuit that the vaccines are experimental and dangerous are false.
"These folks are not being imprisoned. They're not being strapped down. They're just being asked to receive the vaccination to protect the most vulnerable in hospitals and other health care institutional settings," said Valerie Gutmann Koch, an assistant law professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
Bridges is one of 178 Houston Methodist workers who were suspended without pay on June 8 and will be fired if they don't agree by June 22 to get vaccinated.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System, the largest private employer in Philadelphia, and the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital system have likewise indicated employees who aren't fully vaccinated would lose their jobs.
Houston Methodist's decision in April made it the first major U.S. health care system to require COVID-19 vaccinations for workers. Many hospitals around the country, including Houston Methodist, already require other types of vaccines, including for the flu.
Houston Methodist's president and CEO, Marc Boom, has said nearly 25,000 of the system's more than 26,000 workers have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
"You did the right thing. You protected our patients, your colleagues, your families and our community. The science proves that the vaccines are not only safe but necessary if we are going to turn the corner against COVID-19," Boom said in a statement to employees.
But Bridges, 39, and Kara Shepherd, 38, another nurse who is part of the lawsuit, say they don't have confidence in the vaccine's safety. They say that they have seen patients and co-workers have severe reactions and that there is insufficient knowledge about its long-term effects.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that while a small number of health problems have been reported, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective.
Both Bridges, who has worked 6½ years at the medical-surgical in-patient unit at Houston Methodist's hospital in the suburb of Baytown, and Shepherd, who has worked 7½ years in the labor and delivery unit at a Methodist hospital in Houston, say they are not anti-vaccine, are not conspiracy theorists and are not making a political statement.
"To me, what this ultimately boils down to is freedom," Shepherd said.
Their attorney, Jared Woodfill, said the hospital system is not allowing its workers to make their own health care decisions.
Indiana University Health, Indiana's biggest hospital system, is requiring all its employees be fully vaccinated by Sept. 1. So far, just over 60% of its 34,000 employees have been vaccinated, spokesman Jeff Swiatek said.
Some employees in Indianapolis on Saturday protested the requirement.
Kasey Ladig, an intensive care nurse and outpatient coordinator in the bone marrow transplant unit at IU Health, said she quit the job she loved the day the policy was announced.
"I would love to hear something other than, 'We trust the science,'" Ladig said. "It was a huge red flag. I didn't feel comfortable getting it."
Hospital employees and others have argued that such requirements are illegal because the COVID-19 vaccines are being dispensed under emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration and have not received final FDA approval. But Koch said emergency use does not mean people are being experimented on, and she added that FDA approval is expected.
Allison K. Hoffman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said claims made by Houston Methodist employees that they are being used as human guinea pigs or that vaccine policy violates the Nuremberg Code, a set of rules for medical experimentation that were developed in the wake of Nazi atrocities, "are bordering on absurd."
To avoid such fights, many employers are offering incentives for vaccinations.
Instead of requiring vaccines, the small health care system in Jackson, Wyoming, offered $600 bonuses to employees who got vaccinated before the end of May. That boosted vaccinations from 73% to 82% of the 840 employees at St. John's Health, said spokeswoman Karen Connelly.
Bridges and Shepherd said that while the expected loss of their jobs has meant some financial worries, they have no regrets.
"We're all proud of our decision because we stood our ground and we didn't do something against our will just for a paycheck," Bridges said.