In the darkest days of the pandemic, the staff at Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital devised a way to allow families to say goodbye to loved ones who were terminally ill with COVID-19. They moved patients to rooms where they’d be able to see and communicate with visitors through a window. To facilitate the goodbye, a nurse wearing an isolation gown, gloves, and both an N95 mask and a face shield, would hold a phone to the patient’s face while family members spoke to them for the last time. It was a grueling task. Not only did nurses risk infection and incur the psychological toll of witnessing family trauma, but underneath the PPE, it often got brutally hot and difficult to breathe. At the end of an hour-long meeting, nurses found themselves drenched in sweat and light-headed, their arms numb from holding up a phone or iPad for hours.
Despite the difficult conditions, Jennifer Bridges, a 39-year-old former bartender and CrossFit fanatic, was the first nurse to volunteer for the program. “I didn’t even care if I passed out,” said Bridges, whom other nurses describe as “devoted” to patient care and “extremely hardworking.” “I was going to hold out until my body gave out.”
In those days, Bridges’s strength and hard-nosed attitude helped her excel at work, but more recently those qualities have placed her at the center of a heated dispute with the hospital over her refusal to get a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine. Last month, Houston Methodist became the first hospital in the nation to require that all of its employees get vaccinated. Those who are unable to provide proof of vaccination by June 7 will be suspended without pay for two weeks, according to the company’s new HR policy; and those who haven’t been vaccinated by the end of their suspension will be subject to the “employment termination process.” To date, 98 percent of the 26,000 employees have gotten the jab. Bridges is refusing.
Bridges, who had a bout with COVID-19 last year, balks at the notion that she’s an anti-vaxxer. She said she has received annual flu inoculations and the vaccines for hepatitis B and measles, mumps, and rubella. But like millions of other Americans, she believes the COVID-19 vaccines—which received emergency use authorization—were rushed through the government’s approval process and that some who’ve received the shots have suffered severe side effects that are intentionally withheld from public view. She said she’s encountered dozens of patients at the hospital who have experienced adverse reactions to the vaccines, such as blood clots, heart arrhythmias, and swollen appendages, and has received messages from other hospital workers who say they’ve witnessed the same. Health experts say these assertions are not only misleading but rooted in dangerous misinformation that has flourished on social media. A Houston Methodist spokesperson echoed that sentiment, saying that the hospital has seen “very few severe reactions from the vaccine.”
As Bridges’s fight has circulated in the media, anti-vaxxers have rushed to champion her cause. She welcomes their support and sympathizes with their cause, even as she admits that the pairing is “a little weird. “I don’t discriminate,” she said. “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.”
The conflict between employer and employee arrives at a critical moment for the federal government’s nationwide vaccine rollout: “vaccine hesitancy” has caused daily vaccination totals to drop, and the promise of reaching herd immunity appears increasingly unlikely. In Texas, where only 33 percent of the state is fully vaccinated, and 36 percent of residents are hesitant to get the jab, surplus doses have lingered for weeks. Public health officials have switched to more aggressive outreach efforts in hopes of avoiding a surge of COVID-19 cases or the rise of new variants. Noting that an unvaccinated health-care worker was linked to a COVID outbreak at a Kentucky nursing home in March, leading to several deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in late April that vaccinating health-care workers, in particular, is “essential to reduce the risk of symptomatic COVID-19.”
Both Bridges and another Houston Methodist nurse, Ashton Hanley, said pressure to get vaccinated began months ago and grew more intense as shots became widely available. They said managers at the hospital publicly confronted employees about their vaccine status in hallways. “One manager addressed someone by an ice machine and asked, ‘Are you getting the vaccine or are you going to resign?’” Hanley said, calling the interaction “invasive” and “unprofessional.” Once the hospital announced last month that it would require vaccination, Bridges became upset and began gathering the signatures of more than one hundred coworkers who felt similarly. She said the hospital’s policy has turned vaccine-hesitant employees into “outcasts” at work, leaving many distraught and some in need of anti-anxiety medication.
With tensions rising in the wake of Bridges’s decision to collect signatures, she and Hanley were granted a meeting with hospital officials last month to discuss their concerns about the vaccine. Hospital officials refused to offer them an extra year to decide whether to get inoculated. Both nurses said the tenor of the meeting was uncompromising and constituted bullying. Hanley promptly gave her two weeks’ notice. Bridges decided to fight back in the media, a decision that quickly made her the policy’s most vocal critic and set the stage for an impending showdown.
Stefanie Asin, a Houston Methodist spokesperson, said the hospital’s leadership feels strongly that all employees should be subject to the same vaccination deadlines. “We have to have a fair process with one deadline for the vast majority of our employees,” she said, noting that the hospital offers medical and religious exemptions, as well as delays for pregnant employees. “We did the same thing in 2009 for the flu vaccine as well, because this is part of our culture.” (Bridges and Hanley said the flu comparison is misleading because the vaccine had been in use for years.) Responding to Bridges and Hanley’s allegations of bullying and being confronted in hallways, the hospital declined to address specific incidents. But Asin denied that anyone had pressured the nurses or tried to intimidate them into taking a COVID-19 vaccine. “We absolutely do not retaliate against any employees about anything,” she said. “We are a values-based organization and we do not retaliate.”
Bridges compares her fight to that of women arguing for control of their reproductive rights. “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.” In an email provided to Texas Monthly by Houston Methodist, the hospital’s CEO, Marc Boom, framed the disagreement differently, mostly as a question of patient health. “As health care workers we must do everything possible to keep our patients safe and at the center of everything we do,” Boom wrote. “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.”
Bridges has threatened to sue Houston Methodist, going as far as launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise legal fees. In three weeks, it has brought in about $17,000 of a goal of $500,000. If Bridges does file suit, Valerie Gutmann Koch, codirector of the Health Law & Policy Institute at the University of Houston’s Law Center, said she doesn’t expect courts to embrace the argument that vaccine mandates infringe upon personal liberty. There are several legal precedents, Koch noted, that have allowed employers to mandate vaccines, especially in health-care settings. In addition to that precedent, Bridges, as an at-will employee of a private institution with medical and religious exemptions in place, is not being forced to receive the vaccine, Koch said.
But even if her suit is unsuccessful, Bridges has become a cause célèbre among vaccine skeptics both inside the medical establishment and out. Public health experts worry about the reach she could have.
On a recent spring afternoon, a sleep-deprived Bridges tried to decompress on her backyard deck in a tank top and shorts, before her phone made it nearly impossible. Over the course of an hour, she received an unending stream of texts and phone calls from coworkers, friends, reporters, and strangers. A few minutes into our chat, Bridges also received a message from a political operative summoning her to Austin the next morning to testify in support of a bill in the state Senate, introduced by Edgewood Republican Bob Hall, that would make mandatory vaccination an unlawful employment practice.
In recent days, Bridges has also fielded interview requests from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Inside Edition, and a handful of local television stations. Well-wishers from around the country, most of them conservative and religious, have begun sending Bridges hundreds of messages each day, by email and on Facebook, praising her bravery, promising to pray for her lawsuit, and encouraging her to continue her “fight for freedom.” “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.”
But all of the interview requests, the constant messages, and the feeling that coworkers were counting on her to keep their jobs had also begun to feel like an “incredible weight,” causing her to have a panic attack at work a week earlier. Bridges said, however, that she was ready to travel to Austin to continue her fight. “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, explaining her motivation for testifying. “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.”
For coworkers on either side of the vaccine debate, Bridges’s decision to confront her employer is not entirely surprising. “She’s a fighter and she doesn’t care about losing a job because it’s about morality to her,” said Hanley. Bridges said she’s prepared to sacrifice her steady paycheck. “If I have to go back to bartending, I’ll do it. I’ve been a single mom, I’ve cut yards for money, I know how to work and nothing is beneath me.”
Bridges’s newfound celebrity spawned by her pugnaciousness is worrying to health experts who say the information she’s peddling is dangerous. James T. McDeavitt, a doctor and dean of clinical affairs at the Baylor College of Medicine, called the idea of vaccines unleashing severe side effects and the medical establishment suppressing reports of the reactions “categorically untrue.” He pointed to the CDC’s recommendation last month that states temporarily suspend the use of Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine after six individuals developed a rare blood-clotting disorder. Considering that more than 264 million coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered throughout the United States, he said, they have proved “extraordinarily safe.” “When you do something to two hundred million people and then look back at the data, inevitably you’re going to find that bad things have happened among a population of that size, whether it’s heart attacks or strokes,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused those bad things to happen any more than we’d attribute a good thing happening, like winning the lottery, to the vaccine.”
Though she has firsthand experience caring for patients who attribute sudden health issues to COVID-19 vaccines, Bridges said her distrust stems from reading articles shared among her network of coworkers, family, and friends. She also believes the popular internet conspiracy theories that mRNA vaccines, such as those offered by Moderna and Pfizer, alter recipients’ DNA and that the media has aided public health officials’ attempts to censor news of vaccine-related deaths.
Katelyn Jetelina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, whose newsletter Your Local Epidemiologist unpacks pandemic-related science for the public, said that each of Bridges’s fears have not only been debunked, but can easily be traced back to online misinformation. She pointed out that experts, herself included, have for months provided detailed explanations addressing concerns about vaccines altering DNA. She also pushed back against the notion that the record-breaking vaccine development process was rushed, noting that relevant research for a SARS vaccine began in 2003 and, unlike in previous efforts, today’s researchers have benefited from an unprecedented amount of government funding, manufacturing assistance, and volunteers for clinical trials. “Fast,” she said, “doesn’t necessarily mean rushed.”
What is potentially dangerous, Jetelina said, is when health-care workers and other public figures fall victim to misinformation and then use their platforms to influence public opinion. “People trust nurses and physicians with their lives and, quite frankly, it’s incredibly important that they’re spreading the truth on a grassroots front and really not influencing people to make decisions on false pretenses,” she said. “A health-care worker helping to spread misinformation does huge damage.”