Houston Methodist Hospital to doctors, staff: Get COVID-19 vaccine or get fired

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

Houston Methodist Hospital CEO Marc Bloom is making it clear to doctors and other staff – get vaccinated against COVID-19 or find employment elsewhere. Bloom’s reasoning is that the medical professions should lead by example. He also says that getting vaccinated falls under their professional oath to do everything possible to keep patients safe and healthy.

The hospital employs about 26,000 workers, with 84% already vaccinated. The hospital is close to herd immunity, according to Boom. Managers were required to be vaccinated by April 15 and all other employees by June 7. Those who refuse the vaccination will be suspended or fired. Four out of five employees have complied with the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine requirement. That leaves 4,100 employees who have not received at least their first dose.

This isn’t the first time the hospital has mandated vaccines. In 2009 mandatory annual flu shots became part of hospital policy, with exemptions for religious or medical reasons. Some employees who are currently suspended expect to be terminated soon. Some employees are coming forward with objections not because of medical or religious reasons but because of the emergency use process used to quickly approve the vaccines. They want to hold out until more research is done and the FDA gives full approval.

But not all Houston Methodist employees are on board with being told they have to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, including Bob Nevens, the hospital chain’s Director of Corporate Risk and Insurance, and Jennifer Bridges, a Houston Methodist nurse in Baytown.

Nevens, a nearly ten-year Houston Methodist employee, refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine by the hospital’s April 15 deadline for manager-level employees. That landed him a two-week unpaid suspension, and at the end of the month he expects to be fired in accordance with the hospital’s vaccination policy.

Bridges, who’s been a registered nurse for almost seven years and a Houston Methodist nurse for over six, started circulating a printed petition around her hospital to get signatures from employees who didn’t want to get vaccinated in order to keep their jobs, hoping that it might cause the hospital to get rid of the vaccination requirement.

When her hospital’s top brass asked her to stop distributing the petition about a week ago, she refused and requested a meeting with Boom to see if she could change his mind about the vaccine policy.

“They basically asked ‘Can we tell Marc Boom this is over?’ And I told them ‘Absolutely not,’” Bridges said.

She said she never heard back from Boom, but the following day, he sent out an email to all Methodist employees informing them that the hospital-wide deadline to get a COVID-19 vaccine was June 7. Since then, Bridges started a separate online petition that so far has garnered over 2,300 signatures from members of the public that oppose Houston Methodist’s vaccine requirement.

Bridges argued that wearing medical-grade N95 face masks and plastic face shields is enough to protect patients from COVID-19. The hospital argued that emergency use authorization is a form of FDA approval according to the FDA itself and vaccine experts.

The vaccines may not have gone through a standard long process but months and months of research, testing, and trials were conducted. Tens of thousands of people took part in multiple phases of testing and trials. The vaccines went through those processes in order for the FDA to issue emergency use authorization.

The FDA states in its COVID-19 vaccine fact sheets that although the available vaccines haven’t gone through the agency’s typical approval process, it approved their widespread use because the months and months of research conducted on the vaccines as they were developed led it to believe “that the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product” due to the severity of the pandemic.

Both Bridges and Nevens say they are not anti-vaxxers, that they receive the annual flu shot that is mandatory for employees. This vaccine is different, though. It mostly has to do with la lack of long-term research. They use a my-body-my-choice type of argument. Bridges said that a representative of Senator Ted Cruz’s team “was appalled” to hear of the requirement. That person is allegedly working “to see what they can do.”

Other hospitals have not followed suit with Houston Methodist but several nursing homes have made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for their employees.

“UTMB is not mandating vaccination,” said Christopher Smith Gonzalez, senior communication specialist for the hospital. “But, in view of the high contagiousness of the some of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, UTMB has implemented enhanced respiratory precautions for all unvaccinated individuals caring for or evaluating patients for COVID.”

While 80 percent of Texas Children’s Hospital employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, the hospital does not require inoculation. St. Luke’s Health has vaccinated “thousands of our staff,” vaccinations are not mandatory, according to the health system.

There is a bill before the Texas Legislature this session – House Bill 1687 – that makes it illegal for employers to require workers to take the vaccination. Texas law mandates that medical facilities have a vaccination policy in place. There is no clear-cut federal policy but the government cannot mandate vaccinations, only schools and employers can do it. The CDC is on record saying that it is essential for health care workers to get vaccinated “to reduce the risk of symptomatic COVID-19, as is the continued focus on infection prevention and control practices.” In April the CDC reported that an unvaccinated nursing home employee in Kentucky caused an outbreak at the facility of a coronavirus variant that was “newly introduced to the region.”

This boils down to personal choice. If an employee wants to continue working for a company that requires COVID-19 vaccinations, they will have to comply with that requirement. It’s legal for companies to make the requirement mandatory, especially during a pandemic. Some hospitals like Memorial Hermann plan to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory after some protocols are relaxed. Mask-wearing and social distancing are examples of COVID-19 protocols that will eventually be relaxed. There is no deadline right now for employees to get vaccinated.