Updated January 23, 2022 - 11:24 pm
Labor and delivery nurse Julia Kidd has managed to avoid the pandemic burnout driving other nurses out of the profession at a time of crisis-level staffing shortages.
But the pandemic is exacting a different toll: University Medical Center this month suspended Kidd after rejecting her request for a religious exemption from the hospital’s mandate that all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Kidd, who has worked at UMC for 18 years and now faces possible termination from her job, practices paganism, an alternative nature-based religion. She also follows the Wiccan Rede, an ethical code that states, “If it harm none, do what you will.”
“How does this harm anyone if I don’t get this vaccine? It doesn’t,” Kidd, 55, said last week, explaining how her beliefs impacted her decision to forgo the doses. “If I can wear my mask and prevent transmission, great. If I can wash my hands and prevent transmission, cool. If I need to wear PPE to the nth degree, OK.”
“How does having a vaccine or not affect my ability to be a nurse, my ability to be a good employee at this facility?” she asked, adding that she is willing to be tested daily.
Court upholds health-care mandates
More disputes like Kidd’s are likely to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Jan. 13 allowing a federal vaccination mandate for health care workers at facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding. The deadline for compliance in Nevada and many other states is Feb. 28.
The decision could worsen the existing staffing shortages at hospitals in the Las Vegas Valley and across the country, where many employees are calling in sick at the same time hospitalizations are rising from a surge driven by the omicron variant of the new coronavirus.
“Our health care workers are burnt out. They’re exhausted,” said Jen Sarafina, a Las Vegas labor and employment attorney. “And this is yet another thing that is being expected of them on top of this. There is a real concern of what the staffing is going to look like.”
The situation could become critical if the omicron surge is still peaking when the federal mandate deadline arrives and triggers terminations.
“I can see that as kind of a perfect storm, worst-case scenario, if that were to happen,” said Sarafina, a partner in the law firm of Kamer Zucker Abbott.
‘Handful’ suspended, terminated
UMC announced its own vaccination mandate in September. Today, 97 percent of the staff are vaccinated, said hospital representative Scott Kerbs. Fewer than 200 have requested either a medical or a religious exemption. This represents about 5 percent of UMC’s 4,000 employees, he said.
Kerbs would not say how many requests had been denied.
“Many employees who had their requests denied ultimately received the vaccine,” he wrote in an email. “Only a handful of team members have been suspended or terminated for failing to comply with our mandatory vaccination policy.”
UMC was the only Las Vegas Valley hospital to provide any figures related to exemption requests and related disciplinary actions. A representative of St. Rose Dominican hospitals, which also implemented a vaccination requirement, as well as those of HCA Healthcare and the Valley Health System, said they were following the federal mandate but failed to provide any figures.
Kerbs said that UMC reviewed each exemption request using a “comprehensive and equitable process supported by federal guidance.”
Kidd, who was suspended pending investigation on Jan. 4, said that she has yet to be told why her request was denied. She hopes to present her side of the issue during a future hearing.
The nurse said she is not opposed to vaccinations in general, but has qualms about the COVID-19 vaccines because they are so new.
“Who are you to tell me what I can do with my body?” Kidd said. “I don’t care if you’re my employer. You can tell me what I can and cannot do in terms of behavior, but not what I put in my body.”
Trevor Hatfield, Kidd’s attorney, said goals to reduce pandemic risk through vaccination are good ones as long as care is taken not to infringe on employees’ rights.
However, it appears that some employers are using strong-arm tactics, he said, by denying all requests for religious exemption. He said he did not have enough information to know if this was true in Kidd’s case. She has requested an investigation by the Nevada Equal Rights Commission.
‘Sincerely held religious belief’
Federal guidance on whether to grant an exemption hinges on whether the employee has a “sincerely held religious belief” that prohibits vaccination.
The U.S. Equal Rights Commission states that if an employer “has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information.”
Not qualifying as religious beliefs are objections “based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine,” according to the commission.
One argument for a religious exemption has been that fetal cells from abortions were used in the development or testing of COVID-19 vaccines. The argument has become pervasive enough that the Los Angeles County Department of Health saw fit to produce a fact sheet addressing it.
“The fetal cell lines being used to produce some of the potential COVID-19 vaccines are from two sources,” from an aborted or miscarried fetus in 1973 and one in 1985, the health department states.
“While fetal cell lines may be used to develop or manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccines themselves do not contain any aborted fetal cells,” the department says. Other fetal cells have been used to create vaccines for hepatitis A, rubella and rabies.
Objecting on these grounds may be complicated by vaccination endorsements by major religions with hard-line anti-abortion positions.
The Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, a committee within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has stated that “one may receive any of the clinically recommended vaccines in good conscience with the assurance that reception of such vaccines does not involve immoral cooperation in abortion.”
The bishops conference also has stated that “being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.”
At least one health group has pushed back against objections citing the fetal cells as grounds for a religious exemption. The Conway Regional Health Center in Arkansas asked employees citing this objection to attest to not taking any of at least 28 common medications – including pain-relievers aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen – that it said used fetal cells in their development or testing.
No exemption for prior infection
To protect both patients and staff, hospitals routinely require their employees to have been vaccinated against highly transmissible infectious diseases.
UMC requires employees to be vaccinated, or have natural lasting immunity verified by antibody testing, for measles and chickenpox, Kerbs said. Nearly all its employees receive the annual flu vaccine eachyear. Those who decline a flu shot have been required to wear masks throughout the flu season, though masks currently are required for everyone entering the hospital to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
At least for the time being, employees who were previously infected with COVID-19 are not exempted from the federal vaccination mandate. But it’s conceivable this could change in light of studies such as the one published this past week by the Centers for Disease Control of Prevention indicating that protection from natural infection is superior to protection from vaccination.
If the mandate rules do change, allowing prior infection to be accepted in lieu of vaccination, Kidd, the UMC nurse, might not be forced out of her chosen line of work.
She is currently recovering from what she described as a mild case of COVID-19.