Houston Methodist made headlines at the end of March when the hospital chain’s CEO Dr. Marc Boom made the call to require all of his employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to keep their jobs. It was the first major hospital system in the country to announce it would make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory. Even before making that move, the hospital offered $500 bonuses to any employee who demonstrated proof of vaccination.
The overwhelming majority of Houston Methodist’s workforce have complied with the policy so far: 84 percent of the hospital chain’s 26,000 employees had gotten at least one vaccine shot as of Tuesday, according to Houston Methodist’s Director of Public Relations Stefanie Asin.
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 told the Houston Press he’s on track to be fired at the end of the month because he won’t get vaccinated, while Bridges said she has no plans to take a coronavirus vaccine before the hospital’s June 7 deadline for all employees to have received at least one vaccine shot lest they be fired, and is working to rally support from her coworkers and the public to get Houston Methodist to reverse course.
Asked about potential Houston Methodist patients who might be scared to come in to the hospital if they knew there was a chance their medical personnel might not have received the COVID-19 vaccine, Bridges said that she argued to her superiors that medical-grade N95 face masks and plastic face shields would be enough to protect patients from getting COVID-19 from healthcare workers.
The Human Resources Department at Houston Methodist has said it will consider requests from employees who don’t want to be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons, but neither Nevens nor Bridges are opting out on those grounds. Instead, they both said their reluctance to get vaccinated stems from how the vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration due to the pandemic, as opposed to the traditional, lengthier FDA approval process used when the country isn't in the middle of a public health emergency.
“We just want more research,” Bridges said, “and we want it to be FDA-approved before we inject it into our bodies, you know, because of course, once you put it in, you can’t take it back out.”
Nevens believes that “there’s not enough data for it, and I just didn’t like the idea of being forced to take something that’s not licensed and approved by the FDA.”
However, emergency use authorization is indeed a form of FDA approval according to Houston Methodist, the FDA itself and vaccine experts.
Even though the emergency use process is quicker than the normal FDA approval process, tens of thousands of people were still part of the multiple phases of testing and trials the now-available COVID-19 vaccines had to go through in order to receive emergency use authorization from the FDA.
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.
Since those initial trials, millions upon millions more U.S. residents have been vaccinated without any notable life-threatening side effects cropping up, save for the six women out of 6.8 million recipients of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine who came down with rare blood clots. That discovery led the FDA to recommend pausing its use to conduct even more research on whether or not the clotting was related to the vaccine in the first place.
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.
She said she’s been reached out to by a group that wants to help push back against Houston Methodist’s policy called Texans For Vaccine Choice, an organization that claims to be for “vaccine choice” as opposed to being anti-vaccine in general. The group has recently sent out social media posts trying to link deaths from those who received a COVID-19 vaccine to the vaccine itself despite any evidence, and has lobbied against making vaccinations mandatory for students in Texas schools in the past.
Bridges also said a representative from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s team “was appalled” when she heard about Houston Methodist’s vaccine requirement, and was working “to see what they can do.”
Somehow, it's never the vaccine. If you'd prefer not to become a victim of coincidence, make sure you're with us in this fight to protect and advance informed consent, medical privacy, and vaccine choice: https://t.co/1Cd9wChODh— Texans for Vaccine Choice (@TXforVaxChoice) February 21, 2021
Both Bridges and Nevens are adamant that they’re not opposed to all vaccines; Nevens said he takes the flu vaccine annually, and Bridges said “I’ve taken every vaccine you’re ever supposed to take” before the COVID-19 vaccines came around.
“There’s no long-term research on it at all, so a lot of us are just kind of leery,” Bridges said of her and her colleagues’ reluctance to get vaccinated right now. She said some of her coworkers have told her they plan to quit in protest before the June 7 deadline, while others said they’ll wait until the last minute to get a shot just so they can keep their jobs.
One Houston Methodist employee who didn’t need any coaxing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus is Teal Riley, a nurse who manages the COVID-19 intensive care unit’s nursing staff and who was vaccinated in December. “I was one of the first ones in line,” she said.
Riley said she and the team of hundreds of nurses she oversees have all had a front-row seat to the suffering caused by the coronavirus over the past several months, a big reason why she got vaccinated as quickly as she could.
She’s seen “very ill, very sickly” patients with COVID-19 as young as 21 and 24 years old, seemingly healthy folks who then “eventually need a lung transplant” due to the disease. “We have patients who have been here in the hospital from two to three [days] up to 70 or 80 days. Everybody’s recovery is so different,” Riley said.
ICU patients aren’t the only ones she’s seen suffer. “I had an uncle pass away from COVID within five days of getting diagnosed,” Riley said. He was just 61 years old.
In Boom’s recent message to Houston Methodist employees, he wrote that “Requiring mandatory vaccinations isn’t just about safety. It’s also about being examples for those who are hesitant to get vaccinated.”
Even Nevens said he understands where Boom is coming from when he said hospital employees need to lead by example by getting vaccinated, although he still doesn’t feel comfortable getting a shot himself.
“You know, there’s 90 percent of me that agrees with that,” Nevens said, with the caveat that he still believes his employer’s decision to mandate the COVID-19 vaccines while they’re still under emergency use authorization “is a tough pill to swallow.”
Nevens said he hopes the Texas Legislature will pass House Bill 1687, co-sponsored by Republicans Steve Toth and Candy Noble, which would make it illegal for employers to require their workers to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
Riley said that before getting her first vaccine dose, “I went in and did my own research. I went to Pfizer’s website, I did literature reviews, just to read up on it. I looked at the case studies and everything to get my own sense of confidence.”
“I wanted to see the raw data on what the outcomes were going to be, and that was enough to satisfy me,” she said.
When asked about her colleagues that don’t feel comfortable taking the vaccine, Riley said she believes “Everybody has their own opinion. [But] I do wish that they would reconsider.”
To her, “The benefit of getting this immunization, this vaccination, is so much better than the risk of getting COVID and what the possible outcome could be.”
“When you’re going into healthcare, this is what you sign up for,” Riley said.
Obviously not everyone agrees.