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Judge tosses lawsuit against Houston hospital over staff vaccine mandate

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(HOUSTON) — A Texas judge dismissed a lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital over its policy that mandated all staff needed to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face suspension.

The hospital set a deadline for June 7 for its 26,000 employees to get a coronavirus vaccine so that its facilities can be safe from the virus and provide patients with the best protection, according to Houston Methodist.

However, 117 employees, including nurse Jennifer Bridges, contended that the hospital was “illegally requiring its employees to be injected with an experimental vaccine as a condition of employment,” according to the suit filed at the end of May.

In her five-page decision issued Saturday night, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes rejected the plaintiffs’ complaint that the COVID-19 vaccines were unsafe.

“This is not coercion. Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer,” Hughes wrote.

The judge added that Texas law only protects employees from wrongful termination if they refuse to commit an illegal act.

“Bridges does not specify what illegal act she has refused to perform, but in the press release style of the complaint, she said she refuses to be a ‘human guinea pig,'” Hughes wrote. “Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is not an illegal act.”

Jared Woodfill, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, told ABC News in a statement that he plans on appealing the decision. Woodfill, who has also filed suits against mask mandates and lockdowns in Texas on behalf of clients, said the case is “just one battle in a larger war to protect the rights of employees to be free from being forced to participate in a vaccine trial as a condition for employment.”

“All of my clients continue to be committed to fighting this unjust policy,” he said in his statement.

At the end of the June deadline, 24,947 hospital employees — 96% — had been vaccinated, according to a spokesperson for Houston Methodist. There were 178 employees who were suspended for not getting their shots in time, and they will have until June 21 to get one vaccine shot before they are terminated, the spokeswoman told ABC News on Sunday.

As of June 11, there were at least 27 suspended employees who got their first shot, the hospital told ABC News.

“Our employees and physicians made their decisions for our patients, who are always at the center of everything we do. They have fulfilled their sacred obligation as health care workers, and we couldn’t ask for a more dedicated, caring and talented team,” Dr. Marc Boom, the president and CEO of Houston Methodist, said in a statement.

Elizabeth Sepper, a professor at University of Texas School of Law, told ABC News that the hospital’s mandate had an airtight legal backing since the vaccines’ emergency use authorization status was not enough reason for employees to back out.

She added that the hospital’s high success rate in getting their staff vaccinated may spur other health organizations to issue a mandate unless they are prohibited by state and local orders.

“The other obvious place we would see vaccine mandates is, of course, schools and universities but Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s order that prohibits schools from mandating vaccines short-circuited that tool,” Sepper told ABC News.

Doctors and health experts said the COVID-19 vaccine rates have led to a major drop in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the last two months. As of Sunday, over 143.1 million Americans, roughly 43.1% of the population, are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Houston, 1.7 million residents have been fully vaccinated as of Sunday, according to the Harris County COVID-19 data hub.

Anyone who needs help scheduling a free vaccine appointment can log onto vaccines.gov.

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