Back in May, when she was a novice handling her first round of interview requests, Jennifer Bridges’s tendency was to let her guard down with reporters. The nurse from Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital had just thrust herself into the national media spotlight, becoming the face of a new group of Texas medical professionals who were refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine and threatening to sue their employers who mandated it. A few minutes after I sat down with the stressed-out and sleep-deprived 39-year-old in the backyard of her Baytown home, I explained how to indicate when a particular statement was “on” or “off” the record. It quickly became clear that self-censorship didn’t come naturally to Bridges, in part because she’d spent the past decade working as a nurse, a profession that encourages its members to develop emotional bonds with vulnerable patients they’ve just met.
When I reached Bridges by phone last week, she sounded like a well-rested and well-rehearsed public relations veteran. Several days before we talked, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning any entity—private or public—from requiring vaccinations for its employees, which reinvigorated Bridges’s cause. She proudly listed off a litany of recent media appearances—ranging from One America News to Hannity on Fox News—and noted that she had two upcoming speaking engagements, the first at a natural-health convention in tiny Lumberton, Texas (population 13,554), the second during a protest against mask mandates on the steps of Houston City Hall. There was also an anti-vax country-music festival called “Fall Freedom Fest” in the works for Montgomery County, north of Houston. If I needed more information, Bridges explained, I could check out her new website. “Or just Google my name and you’ll be like, ‘Holy shit! This lady is everywhere,’ ” she added.
The newfound media fluency isn’t an accident, but rather a function of Bridges having entered a well-oiled, and well-funded, anti-vax machine. When we first chatted in May, her thoughts about the vaccine, which at that point was only approved by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use, verged on agnostic. She was largely supportive of efforts to inoculate the public. As a medical professional, she’d taken countless vaccines, she noted, and had no problem taking another as soon as it was FDA-approved. But now, Bridges believes the COVID-19 vaccine is part of a larger effort to transform the United States into a socialist autocracy and considers her former position on the treatment embarrassingly naive. “There’s no way in the world that I would take that thing now,” she said. “I feel more strongly against it now than I ever have before.”
Her shift in thinking unfolded after she became “entwined,” as she put it, with a large number of anti-vaxxers who supported her lawsuit on Facebook. In addition to her thousands of followers, many of whom have migrated platforms after being banned on traditional social media, Bridges now counts among her close friends reputationally challenged Dallas-based doctors Richard Fleming and Peter A. McCullough. The former, a well-known vaccine skeptic, is a convicted felon who pled guilty to health-care fraud, according to the FBI. The latter, also a vaccine skeptic, is being sued by Baylor Scott & White Health for reportedly affiliating himself with the hospital network that no longer employed him, violating a confidential separation agreement. Bridges said she considers both men geniuses. Like many of her new acquaintances, she now believes the vaccines are a sinister political weapon being wielded by elites to dismantle global democracy—an all-encompassing conspiracy theory that is known as the “Great Reset.” “This experience has definitely opened my eyes,” she said. “Some of us are beginning to call this movement ‘the awakening,’ because most of us had no clue how corrupt our own country has become.”
A day after Abbott’s executive order, Jared Woodfill, a right-wing plaintiff’s attorney who represents Bridges and nearly two hundred other nurses, fired off a letter to Houston Methodist demanding his clients’ jobs back. “While Methodist executives and administrators cowardly shielded themselves from COVID-19 positive patients, our clients were on the front lines treating COVID-19 positive patients,” Woodfill wrote. “As a result, many contracted COVID-19. Governor Abbott’s order reflects an appreciation not only for their sacrifice, but more importantly for the science regarding those who have developed a natural immunity.” (Anti-vax conspiracists believe that there’s full immunity for those who’ve recovered from COVID-19, but while individuals who have recovered from the virus may develop some immunity, reinfection—which can restart the cycle of viral spread—is still possible. Vaccinations reduce someone’s risk of contracting, and spreading, the virus.)
But Bridges, who recovered from COVID-19 last year and claims she still has natural immunity to the virus, never cited her immune system as a reason for reclaiming her former job to me. In fact, her former employer appeared to be of little interest, though she didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to work at Houston Methodist. Bridges’s chief concern was finding new ways to fund her lawsuit and spread misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Bridges has become a successful anti-vax fundraiser. She collected about $180,000 to fund the lawsuit against Houston Methodist on GoFundMe before the platform kicked her off this month for violating the site’s policy against vaccine misinformation. After her deplatforming, she set up shop on another crowdfunding site geared toward Christians, and received a flurry of supportive messages, as well as new donations, from users. “I had a woman from the site call me and literally say, ‘I was assigned to you as your prayer warrior,’ and sat there on the phone with me and prayed for an hour and a half to help our lawsuit,” she said. “They made me feel like I was home.”
GoFundMe isn’t the only mainstream platform that has blocked Bridges’s communication and fundraising efforts, she said. Bridges told me Squarespace shut down her attempt to sell hats and T-shirts. And when we spoke, she repeatedly railed against Facebook, calling the social-media giant “ridiculous” for quickly removing almost anything she posts these days that includes the word “COVID” or “vaccine,” labeling the content “misinformation.”
To get around the bans, she and other anti-vaccine activists have begun posting on alternative video platforms like Rumble and BitChute, which can rack up millions of page views. She’s also become active on Gab and Telegram, two alternative social-media platforms with limited moderation that exploded in popularity among conservatives after the Capitol insurrection. Part of what has emboldened Bridges, particularly on platforms like Gab, is the sense that she’s far from alone. In Texas, close to 30 percent of the state’s residents haven’t yet received a single dose; not all are explicitly anti-vax, but the community of loud, angry skeptics is sizable.
Bridges, who is working as a private nurse, isn’t sure how long she plans to continue her fight against the vaccine, but she feels she is winning. “I feel like I’m in this underground battle, but you wouldn’t believe how many people are in this underground battle with me,” she said. “Pretty soon it won’t be underground anymore.”
In the meantime, she’s fully committed to the fight and is canceling her personal plans accordingly. She nixed a trip to Bali for her upcoming fortieth birthday due to her demanding anti-vax speaking and lobbying schedule—not to mention the fact that she’s not vaccinated, which makes it difficult to fly internationally. And while in most summers Bridges tends to a garden full of fruits and vegetables in her backyard, the plot lay dormant this year. As long as Bridges remains on the anti-vax circuit, that’s unlikely to change.