Houston hospital suspends 178 employees who refused COVID-19 vaccines

A Houston hospital has suspended 178 staff members who have refused to abide by its mandate that employees be fully vaccinated by Monday.

Nearly 25,000 of Houston Methodist's staff members have been fully inoculated against COVID-19 as part of a vaccination requirement announced in April, Houston Methodist's president, Dr. Marc Boom, said in a statement Tuesday.

But 178 unvaccinated employees who did not get religious or medical exemptions were suspended without pay, including 27 who are only partly vaccinated.

"We won't have the final numbers for two weeks as employees can still get vaccinated with their second dose or with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine," Boom's statement said. "I wish the number could be zero, but unfortunately, a small number of individuals have decided not to put their patients first."

There are 285 unvaccinated employees who received medical or religious exemptions and 332 more who were granted deferrals.

Boom said that he understood that it was a "very difficult decision" for some employees to be vaccinated but that they did the right thing to protect "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. "The mRNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines isn't new or experimental. It's been around for many years."

Amanda Rivera, an emergency room nurse, told NBC affiliate KPRC that she is one of the suspended employees and faces termination if she refuses to comply.

"I feel like they kind of bullied us into this little corner, like you have to do it or you don't have a job. This is my only source of income," Rivera said.

A lawsuit filed against the hospital at the end of May by 117 employees argued that Covid-19 vaccines were "experimental" and that Houston Methodist could not force an employee "to accept an FDA unapproved vaccine on penalty of termination or other sanctions."

"None of the currently available experimental vaccines for COVID-19 has received final approval from the FDA," the lawsuit says.

Three COVID-19 vaccines — manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots a few weeks apart, while the Johnson & Johnson is a single inoculation.

Jared Woodfill, the attorney who filed the lawsuit in Montgomery County, said he intends to file with the state court. Woodfill maintained that the hospital violated the law by requiring employees to take a vaccine that has not received full approval and that his clients are threatened with termination after the suspensions.

"Essentially, Dr. Boom is requiring my clients to serve as human guinea pigs, and if they're not, they're taken to the door. ... There's no choice. It's all about coercion, all about pressure," Woodfill said.

Woodfill said the idea of COVID-19 vaccination mandates is "a question that needs to be answered not just for my clients, but for hospitals and employers everywhere." He accused Boom of putting profits over people to brand the hospital as the first to mandate vaccinations for its employees.

"It's clearly about the bottom line but not about the people who put their lives on the line," Woodfill said. "This is how they're repaid, with a pink slip."

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in guidance issued last month that federal guidelines do not prohibit employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations so long as reasonable accommodations are made under the Americans With Disabilities Act.