Among the stories that caused the most sensation last week was a decision by a Houston hospital system to lay off some 150 employees because they refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
As if the country needed one more reason to be divided. The battle lines are drawn across society with the vaccinated on one side and the unvaccinated on the other. This is going to make a lot of interesting copies over the next few months.
The Houston Methodist Hospital System, according to published reports, said 153 employees were fired or resigned during a two-week suspension for not being vaccinated. In April, it became the first major hospital system to put such a requirement in place, according to reports. Rest assured, this one is not over and it will be closely watched by employers and employees.
His decision has already survived a court challenge, with a federal judge dismissing a lawsuit brought by 117 employees, according to reports. There is the old maxim, popular here in Texas and elsewhere, that employees serve at the employer’s pleasure, and you follow their rules. You know what you’re signed up for and if you don’t like the rules, you can use your talents in another workplace. This was part of the judge’s message to the employees in dismissing the litigation.
It seems, although there is a twist here. An employer insists that employees receive medical immunizations in the interest of public safety. Let’s face it. The coronavirus pandemic is something we haven’t dealt with in this country for some time. It is (the pandemic is not over) a highly contagious virus that has contributed to the deaths of more than 600,000 people in this country and more than 3 million worldwide.
We also know that some of the people on the front lines of this crisis were healthcare workers. They have seen death, misery and isolation up close for months. Many of them have contracted the virus. Many of them died. I’m still not sure we have a full picture of what exactly it was from their perspective. We have heard and read excerpts over the past 15 months, but a full measure of their experience has yet to emerge.
Let us also remember the incredible speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were brought to the market. It is miraculous what has been accomplished, but it is an accomplishment that has led to skepticism. Again this week, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece titled “Are COVID vaccines riskier than advertised?” The article explored how scientists expressed concerns about vaccine risks being underestimated. Just this week, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would add a warning about the rare cases of heart inflammation associated with two of the vaccines.
In other words, we still don’t know what we don’t know.
Some employees in the Houston hospital system would have been given exemptions for religious or other reasons, but overall it’s worth asking if an employer can really do this? If so, where does it end? Will other vaccinations become compulsory? What’s going on with the next pandemic? It looks like there are a lot of jokers in this deck.
There are also a lot of fine lines. First, what are the employer’s rights? Reading the coverage so far, it appears that the hospital system is acting in its capacity as the responsible healthcare institution. From this point of view, that means that the critical mission is that patients are protected, and one way to do this is to ensure that they are surrounded by vaccinated personnel.
Anyone who has worked for an employer of any size knows that companies have rules and regulations. Typically, these are formalized in an employee handbook, and people are instructed on the dos and don’ts as part of the on-boarding or company orientation process. People start their tenure in a new business with their eyes wide open. They know where the limits are.
But it is new territory in more ways than one. It is likely that few organizations, even healthcare facilities, had COVID-19 protocols on their human resources radar until recently. People found themselves subject to a new rule with a direct impact on their bodies. The decision to get vaccinated, no matter what an employer’s good reasoning, was taken away from them.
Also, keep in mind that we have no long-term data on the impacts and possible effects of these vaccines. They have only been available for months. This is not to throw stones at all the work that has been done to get them online, but only to speculate on how we might view these specific COVID-19 vaccines five years from now.
(For the sake of clarity, I am fully vaccinated, having taken the Moderna vaccine twice in the last month. My reaction was mild, suffering from a “wreck spell” for about 12 hours following the second stroke) .
With vaccination rates declining across the country and relatively low in some areas, we can expect to see more in the days to come. For example, rock band Foo Fighters, who know a thing or two about good music, recently performed several concerts in which attendance was limited to those who had been vaccinated or to those who had tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours. following the event. .
If you haven’t seen the recently released NFL antivirus protocols, be sure to take a look. Basically, those with vaccines have a lot more freedom to go and do whatever they want. Those without, well, not so much. The league took things seriously last year, handing six-figure fines to teams and coaches who broke their protocols.
As the country slowly emerged from the pandemic, the next standard will include how to navigate life with or without vaccination. We have seen colleges and workplaces grapple with this. No one wants to face another wave of COVID-19, and with the delta variant circulating in the country and large pockets of people who have not been vaccinated, conditions are favorable, although experts say it won’t. will look nothing like what we saw last winter (thankfully).
We haven’t heard the last of the Houston case. People feel like they’ve been told what to do for a long time, and most of them have cooperated. They want to have a say in how they live the rest of their lives.
We’ll see who might listen.
Doug Hensley is Associate Regional Editor and Commentary Director for The Globe-News.