Nurses and healthcare providers were among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but this group isn’t a monolith. Many hospital workers have opted out, despite strong evidence that shows these vaccines are both safe and effective.
Jennifer Bridges, a nurse at Houston Methodist Hospital, has emerged as a leader among those unwilling to get their shots. She recently opposed the hospital’s decision to mandate vaccines for all employees. However, her critics say the facility has a right to make sure its staff is vaccinated against COVID-19.
Last month, Houston Methodist became the first healthcare facility in the country to impose a vaccine mandate for all its employees. Anyone unable to provide proof of vaccination by June 7th would receive a two-week suspension without pay, according to the company’s HR policy.
If the person still isn’t vaccinated at the end of their suspension, they would be terminated. Records show that 98% of the hospital’s 26,000 employees have gotten their shots, but Bridges remains a staunch holdout.
Bridges came down with COVID-19 at one point during the pandemic, but she believes the government rushed through the approval process to get the vaccine to market as fast as possible. She also says that she’s seen patients come down with various side effects from vaccines, such as blood clots and swollen appendages, but health experts say this is rooted in misinformation that poses a risk to public safety.
Both the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been linked to blood clots, but only in a small portion of those that receive them. This isn’t true of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
The hospital also pushed back against Bridges’ claims, saying that the hospital has seen “very few severe reactions from the vaccine.”
Texas has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, currently at just 33%. Another 36% of Texans say they are hesitant to get the shot. Thousands of doses have been sitting for weeks, with few takers willing to roll up their sleeves.
Back in March, several residents died from a COVID-19 outbreak at a nursing home in Kentucky. They traced the outbreak back to an unvaccinated employee. The CDC later issued a statement that said vaccinating healthcare workers is “essential to reduce the risk of symptomatic COVID-19.”
The Face of Anti-Vaxxers
Bridges and Ashton Hanley, another Houston Methodist nurse, say the hospital started pressuring employees to get the shots as soon as they became available. Hanley calls her colleagues’ behavior “invasive” and “unprofessional”. “One manager addressed someone by an ice machine and asked, ‘Are you getting the vaccine or are you going to resign?’” Hanley said.
Once the hospital announced its decision, Bridges started collecting signatures of those hesitant to get the shot. Over a hundred of her colleagues signed on, but she says they started to feel like “outcasts” on the floor.
Administrators finally agreed to meet with Bridges and Hanley to discuss their concerns. The nurses asked for another year to decide whether they want to get the shot, but the request was denied. Hanley put in her two-week notice, but Bridges kept on fighting.
Since then, Bridges hasn’t been shy about her opposition to the hospital’s policy. She’s been sharing her story online and with various news outlets, bringing her a new kind of fame. Anti-vaxxers have been rallying to her cause, but Bridges doesn’t think of herself as one of them. She regularly signs up for her flu, hepatitis B, and various other vaccines; it’s just the COVID-19 shot that gives her pause.
As for aligning herself with the anti-vaxxers, she says, “If that’s their belief, I’m totally comfortable with it, because everyone should have a choice, and right now people are being forced to do this when they don’t want to. If they are anti-vax that’s their right.”
As Bridges continues to make headlines, Stefanie Asin, a spokesperson for the hospital, has been refuting her claims. She says the hospital feels strongly that every employee should adhere to the same vaccine timeline. “We have to have a fair process with one deadline for the vast majority of our employees,” Asin said.
“We did the same thing in 2009 for the flu vaccine as well, because this is part of our culture,” she added. But Bridges says that’s a false comparison because the flu vaccine has been around for years.
In response to Bridges’ allegations of bullying and intimidation, Asin said, “We absolutely do not retaliate against any employees about anything. We are a values-based organization and we do not retaliate.”
For Bridges, the fight is personal. She compares it to her right for reproductive control. “This is supposed to be America, you’re supposed to have civil rights and constitutional rights, your freedom of choice,” she said. “All these people who always claim my body, my choice, well where are you now? It’s the same thing. Nobody should be forced to put anything into their body if they’re not okay with it.”
Hospital CEO Marc Boom doesn’t see it as an issue of personal freedom. “As health care workers we must do everything possible to keep our patients safe and at the center of everything we do. 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,” Boom wrote.
As the vaccination deadline approaches, Bridges says she is preparing to sue the hospital. She’s already raised $17,000 online for legal fees. If she goes forward with the lawsuit, her victory is anything but assured.
Valerie Gutmann Koch, co-director of the Health Law & Policy Institute at the University of Houston’s Law Center, says she doubts the courts would frame the issue as an infringement on her personal liberty. She adds that there’s plenty of legal precedent for private organizations requiring vaccines.
Regardless of where the fight goes from here, Bridges has already made a name for herself around the country. She’s received dozens of requests for interviews from major news outlets. Texas state Senator Bob Hall even offered to fly her to Austin to speak on behalf of a bill that would make it illegal for companies to mandate vaccinations.
“It’s nonstop, from seven in the morning until eleven at night,” she said. “I’m happy that there’s so much support and there’s so many people wanting to help fight this right now.”
However, becoming the leader of a cause comes at a price. Bridges says she’s been wracked with anxiety in recent weeks. Despite the toll, she’s not giving up anytime soon.
“I don’t like bullies and I don’t like people who feel they can intimidate you because they have power and money,” she said “I’m that one where, if I see a bunch of people who are picking on someone who is defenseless, I’m going to come help them, and if I can’t help them, I’m going to kick the bully’s ass or go to jail because I’m not going to let the victim go through that.”
Victim or not, Bridges has become a household name, at least in the anti-vax community.