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Houston Methodist workers file suit after hospital orders them to get vaccinated

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Some Houston Methodist employees are taking the hospital to court over its requirement that all workers get vaccinated against COVID-19

A group of 117 unvaccinated employees filed suit on Friday in an attempt to bypass the hospital system's mandate that all of its 26,000 workers get their shots by June 7. Managers at the Houston Methodist, the first medical establishment in the U.S. to issue a vaccine mandate, faced an earlier deadline and had to get their shots by April 15.

"Methodist Hospital is forcing its employees to be human 'guinea pigs' as a condition for continued employment," the complaint, filed in state court by Houston-area lawyer and conservative activist Jared Woodfill, states. The mandate "requires the employee to subject themselves to medical experimentation as a prerequisite to feeding their families," it added.

"It is unfortunate that the few remaining employees who refuse to get vaccinated and put our patients first are responding in this way," Houston Methodist said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch. "It is legal for health care institutions to mandate vaccines, as we have done with the flu vaccine since 2009. The COVID-19 vaccines have proven through rigorous trials to be very safe and very effective and are not experimental. More than 165 million people in the U.S. alone have received vaccines against COVID-19, and this has resulted in the lowest numbers of infections in our country and in the Houston region in more than a year."

Houston Methodist also said that 99% of its employees had complied with its vaccination policy.

"Very safe"

Houston Methodist — a medical center and six community hospitals — took a carrot-and-stick approach, initially rewarding its vaccinated workers with an extra $500 back in March, while also signaling that at some point the shots would no longer be voluntary for its workers. 

The health system needs to do all it can to keep patients safe during the pandemic, and that includes having all staff vaccinated, Dr. Marc Boom, Houston Methodist's president and CEO, told employees in late April in an emailed message.

"Mandating the vaccine was not a decision we made lightly, but science has proven that the COVID-19 vaccines are very safe and very effective. Like I say to everyone who asks—whether they are reporters, the public, patients or our employees, it is our sacred obligation to do everything possible to keep our patients safe. By choosing to be vaccinated, you are leaders—showing our colleagues in health care what must be done to protect our patients, ourselves, our families and our communities."

Other hospitals will soon follow suit, with plans already in the works at two other medical centers in Texas: Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine, the physician noted. "I have spoken to countless hospital leaders across the country who plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccination soon," he added in the email, which was shared with CBS MoneyWatch.

"We're getting to the last mile of people who are more reluctant," Boom told a town hall-style meeting in April. "Trust the vaccines. They are safe, they are effective and they are the answer to this pandemic," he said in leading a nearly two-hour discussion to address concerns and answer questions about the vaccines.

Mobile vaccination clinics set up at beaches 03:45

Out of about 1,200 in management who were required to be vaccinated by mid-month, two chose to leave. "We are sorry that they made that choice, but by doing so, they are putting themselves before the safety of our patients, which is not consistent with our culture," he wrote. "By getting to 100%, we can show our community and our patients how much we care about them."

Despite that goal, the hospital system's new vaccination requirement prompted an online petition against the policy, started by registered nurse Jennifer Bridges, among those now suing her employer. She told CBS affiliate KHOU that she's ready to lose her job.

"I think our rights as human beings are more important than keeping that job," Bridges, employed at Houston Methodist for more than six years, told the local station. 

"Many employees are scared that they will lose their job or be forced to inject the vaccine into their body against their will to keep their jobs and feed their family. We just want the power to choose for ourselves and not take this basic American right away from us! Please help our cause to fight for all the nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, pharmacy staff, phlebotomists, etc.," her petition states. It had more than 8,470 signatures as of Tuesday.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in December that employers can legally require workers to get a COVID-19 shot. Exceptions can be made for workers with a disability or those with "sincerely held" religious beliefs that prevent them from getting inoculated. It reiterated that stance in an update on Friday. 

"Keep you out of the funeral home"

Addressing worries about possible side effects, Boom and his colleagues stressed the far worse potential outcomes of not getting vaccinated. 

"All of these vaccines that are approved by the FDA for emergency use in America will keep you out of the hospital, and they will keep you out of the funeral home, and they will do a great job of protecting you from severe illness," said Dr. Dirk Sostman, professor emeritus of radiology at Houston Methodist Weill Cornell Medical College, in the town hall.

Sostman also urged people against focusing "on basically a 1-in-a-million chance of having a bad outcome with a vaccine when you've got a 1-in-500 chance of dying from COVID. These risks are so disparate that they are hard to compare."

The physicians warned that the Houston area has seen increased cases of more contagious variants of the coronavirus, making vaccinations that much more important. 

Easing of COVID restrictions causing anxiety 04:21

According to the Harris County/City of Houston COVID-19 data hub, the area has a 5% positivity rate as of Sunday, May 31. Nearly 22% of the population is now vaccinated in Texas, a state that has recorded 51,508 COVID-19 deaths. 

In offering its roughly 65,000 U.S. employees $200 each and paid time off to get the shots, health insurer Cigna also noted that the country is in "a race against more contagious variants." 

The U.S. is currently administering just 1.6 million vaccine doses a day, with the country averaging 21,627 new infections daily. Nearly 63% of adults have received at least their first shot, and 51.5% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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