Three Winchester Medical Center workers who refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus unsuccessfully sued to keep their jobs.
The lawsuit was filed on Monday against Valley Health System, the six-hospital chain that includes WMC, on behalf of registered nurses Rebecca Ashworth and Kayla Cox and certified nursing assistant Lori Swartz. All Valley Health employees had until midnight Tuesday to get vaccinated or get fired unless they received medical or religious exemptions.
Judge William Warner Eldridge IV on Tuesday in Winchester Circuit Court dismissed the suit. He sided with Valley Health, whose attorneys argued the plaintiffs needed authorization from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights to sue under the Virginia Human Rights Act.
“The VHRA does not permit a claimant to pursue temporary relief in court until ‘after a notice of a charge of discrimination is issued,’” attorney Andrew S. Baugher wrote, citing a June verdict in Norfolk Circuit Court that ruled in favor of the city of Norfolk. “And then, ‘the petition shall contain a certification by the Office that the particular matter presents exceptional circumstances and irreparable injury will result from unlawful discrimination in the absence of temporary relief.’”
The suit was filed by attorney E. Scott Lloyd, a Front Royal councilman and former Office of Refugee Resettlement director during the Trump administration. Lloyd, who said the Office of Civil Rights was unresponsive to his client’s complaints, asserted Valley Health used an opaque system to determine which employees would receive religious exemptions.
Lloyd — who as a councilman in July unsuccessfully sought to ban Front Royal employers from firing employees who hadn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 — said many Valley Health employees received exemptions and his clients were being discriminated against.
“Plaintiffs are among the collection of employees whose religious beliefs Valley Health has deemed to be less acceptable than the religious beliefs of other employees,” Lloyd wrote. “VHS has set up a process for its religious exemptions that could not conduct a meaningful analysis of its [employees’] religious beliefs.”
Hospital spokesperson Carol S. Weare said in a Tuesday email that just 5% of hospital employees received medical or religious exemptions. The hospital has about 2,700 full-time employees and 300 part-timers, including roughly 1,400 RNs and 200 CNAs.
Swartz said getting the vaccine violated her Christian beliefs. Because fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses from the 1990s were used in the vaccine development, Swartz said the vaccine doesn’t “glorify” her God and violates the “sanctity of life and the law of the Old Testament.”
COVID-19 has killed 4.7 million people, including some 677,000 Americans through Monday, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. But Cox said she was safe.
“My creator designed me with a natural immunity system,” she said.
The lawsuit comes at a time when the highly contagious delta variant has flooded WMC and hospitals around the nation with patients, most of whom are not vaccinated.
“The rising COVID patient census continues to strain resources at our hospitals, physician offices, urgent care centers and other patient care locations,” Mark Nantz, Valley Health CEO and president, said in a Sept. 13 news release. “And to further underscore the importance of vaccinations, we must note that the vast majority of the COVID-positive patients in our ICU are either unvaccinated or have not completed their vaccination series.”
Weare said about 85% of the 103 COVID-19 patients at WMC on Tuesday were unvaccinated. At the pandemic’s February peak, before the vaccine was widely available, there were 164 COVID patients at all of Valley Health’s hospitals.
In addition to the emotional and physical stress, the COVID-19 surge has put WMC employees health at risk. Weare said about 100 hospital employees are in isolation due to being infected with COVID-19 or quarantining due to being exposed to an infected person.
About 182 million Americans, or about 54% of the population, are fully vaccinated, including 5.1 million Virginians.