Health & Science

Hospitals Across Texas And The U.S. Mull Vaccine Mandates In Wake Of Houston Methodist Lawsuit

At least five more Texas hospitals have followed Methodist’s lead, and hospitals in New York, Michigan and Kentucky have done the same.

A drone shot of the Texas Medical Center, on Aug. 28, 2020.

When a federal judge threw out a lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital over its worker vaccine requirement, he did not mince words.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes of Houston called the suit a “press-release style” complaint. He blasted an argument from the lead plaintiff — one of 117 Methodist employees seeking to overturn the mandate — for her argument comparing the policy to Nazi experimentation during the Holocaust, calling it “reprehensible.” And in no uncertain terms, he cleared the way for employers to set their own vaccination policies, in accordance with guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice: “Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is not an illegal act, and it carries no criminal penalties,” he wrote.

Now more and more hospitals across Texas — and around the country — have begun to set their own mandates: In the past week alone, hospitals in Houston, San Antonio and Dallas have followed Methodist’s lead. And more are likely to come, according to University of Houston law professor Seth J. Chandler.

"There's nothing really special about Methodist Hospital in terms of the law, and there was nothing in the court's opinion that depended on any factors that were peculiar to Methodist,” Chandler said. “And so other hospitals can have, I think, some confidence that the decision reached in the Methodist case is going to apply equally well to them.”

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The 117 employees sued Methodist in May, arguing that because none of the COVID-19 vaccines had received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they ammounted to “experimental” treatments, and that requiring employees to get their shots was in violation of federal law.

All three vaccines have received emergency use authorization.

The district court rejected those aruments arguments last month. And while there may be some cases where an employee has a legitimate religious objection or a medical condition that stops them from getting vaccinated, Chandler said employers will likely find themselves within their legal rights in providing a safe workplace by requiring vaccinations.

"It seems to me hospitals have about the strongest case there is to require their employees to be vaccinated, so that going to the hospital doesn't become a way of catching COVID,” he said.

In the wake of the lawsuit, 153 Houston Methodist employees resigned or were fired. Just 25 holdouts opted to get vaccinated.

Since the suit’s dismissal, at least five more Texas hospital systems issued their own mandate. The state’s largest nonprofit medical provider, Baylor Scott & White Health, and Methodist Health System — both serving North Texas — gave workers until Oct. 1 to get their shots. Baptist Health System announced the requirement on Friday for its five San Antonio hospitals.

Houston’s Memorial Hermann Health System, the largest nonprofit health system in the region, announced its own mandate in an interview with Houston Matters one day later. Dr. David Callender, the hospital system’s president and CEO, told host Craig Cohen that the surge of cases due to the more transmissable delta variant made the decision more necessary than ever.

Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston's Texas Medical Center, on Aug. 28, 2020. Methodist was the first hospital in the country to require vaccines for its workers. Others across Texas and the U.S. have now followed suit.

In Houston’s Texas Medical Center, the seven-day average positivity rate has jumped to 12.1% — up from 3.1% last month. In July, hospitals were seeing 133 cases per day. That number has jumped to around 2,000. Statewide, the number of reported COVID-19 cases was around 1,100 on July 1. On Tuesday, that number rose to nearly 12,000, according to state health data.

"We think it is very important for health care workers across the country to be vaccinated," Callender said in the interview.

According to reports from across the U.S., hospitals outside the state are beginning to issue their own mandates.

Trinity Health in Michigan, New York-Presbyterian Hospital and the Baptist Health System — which serves Kentucky and southern Indiana — announced their vaccine policies in recent days. The New Hampshire Hospital Association on Tuesday endorsed a hospital vaccine mandate in that state.

"Our actions are critical to stopping the spread of COVID-19, and we must all remain vigilant and continue taking steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, and most importantly, that means to get vaccinated," Steve Ahnen. president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, wrote in a blog post.

The first hospital to announce its requirement after the suit was Baylor College of Medicine, in the Houston area. During a Greater Houston Partnership webinar last week, Executive Vice President James McDeavitt told members of the business community that others should do the same.

“You’re starting to see a groundswell of organizations — starting in health care but I think it will spread to others — that are going to mandate vaccinations,” he said during the presentation. “And if you can mandate or strongly encourage, I would strongly encourage you to do so.”

Additional reporting by Joseph Leahy of KUT.

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