A group of just under 100 employees up for termination calculated their combined experience as 960 years — a significant amount of caregiver experience Inova Loudoun Hospital leadership was willing to fire based on rejected or revoked religious exemptions.
Virginia Walker was a new night-shift nurse at Inova emergency room in 2019. Promoted to charge nurse, Walker served as a Covid-19 first responder, receiving multiple awards for her dedication to life-saving care, until her permanent religious exemption to an experimental vaccine was revoked, and she was fired.
Rene Camp was an Inova nurse for 15 years. She served in labor and delivery as a physician assistant IT analyst and software trainer. Like Walker, her “permanent” exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine was rescinded, and she was fired — while working in a remote position.
Beth McKinnon started working at the Loudoun hospital’s emergency room in 1998. In 2019 she was charge nurse, leading the entire ER and managing flow between doctors, emergency medical services, trauma bay, and the waiting room. In 2021, McKinnon was named nurse of the year and preceptor of the year at Inova Loudoun. A year later her religious exemption was denied, and she was fired for refusing the vaccine booster.
Jess Baker was an Inova intensive care unit trauma tech who transferred to the ER as a new nursing graduate. Soon after, she was denied her religious exemption to the vaccine and fired.
Gina Smith served Inova patients for eight years as a surgical scheduler. Leadership rescinded her permanent religious exemption from the Covid-19 vaccine and required her to reapply or face termination. Smith reapplied, waiting nearly three months to learn her exemption was denied. Smith resigned as she awaited a termination notice.
The widespread termination of experienced health care workers continues to disrupt northern Virginia’s leading health care system, Walker said, with replacement staff rarely holding equivalent skills. “They fired our nurse of the year for not getting her booster,” Walker said. “She was the most amazing asset we had [in the ER].”
Some of those terminated worked completely remotely. Some had provided care for more than a decade as dedicated employees. And more and more are filing complaints with the state’s attorney general.
So many discrimination complaints have been filed by terminated Inova employees that Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares sent a letter to the president and chief executive officer of Inova Health System on July 22, 2022, informing him that cases were currently under review and could result in civil action.
“My office has received information from numerous sources that INOVA Health Systems has denied multiple employee requests for religious and disability exemptions from Inova’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” Miyares wrote.
The denials, Miyares went on, appeared to be incorrect, a breakdown in the interactive process, and an outright failure to accommodate reasonable requests as required by law.
Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, addressed Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office in a letter last spring citing widespread discrimination against constituents choosing a religious exemption to the Covid-19 vaccine. Investigating the issue further, LaRock found that Inova health care workers who had been terminated for refusing the vaccine had not been offered reasonable accommodations, as required by federal law.
“These workers are being threatened with denial of unemployment benefits as employers misrepresent these terminations as voluntary,” LaRock wrote.
“Most, or perhaps all, of these workers who have chosen a religious exemption are being punished and discriminated against for a decision based on deeply held beliefs in direct violation of the protections contained in our Virginia Constitution and various statutes.”
LaRock has documentation that employees fired due to denied religious exemptions may have had unemployment benefits withheld.
In an email dated March 15, 2022, Inova’s Vaccine Exemption Review Committee responded to an exemption request with a denial, stating that “to maintain your active status as an Inova team member, you will need to comply with the requirements of the Immunization Program policy. … Team members terminated for failing to adhere to company policies are generally not eligible for unemployment benefits but will be eligible for rehire provided the pre-employment requirements are met.”
Unemployment benefits are outlined in the Virginia Code. Section 60.2-618 lists reasons for disqualification from benefits, including misconduct.
In 2022, the Youngkin administration supported HB 1201, which would have excluded vaccine refusal from “misconduct.” The bill passed the House but was killed by the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Virginia Employment Commissioner Carrie Roth said that sincerely held religious beliefs should not affect an employee’s access to benefits if they quit. “Each claim is unique and must be looked at individually on the basis of eligibility,” Roth said in an email dated Jan. 24.
Inova Vaccine Rollout
On June 17, 2021, Walker received an email stating that her employer was mandating all employees receive their first Covid-19 vaccine dose by Sept. 1. This was while the vaccine was still in its “emergency use” phase. Walker, alongside many of her colleagues, was not comfortable being part of an experimental trial.
“I remember sitting at a round table meeting with admin at 3 a.m. during the time the vaccine was being approved as an Emergency Authorized Use,” Walker said. “Many of the nurses were concerned it would be forced on their units and I asked and the response was that [admin] would have to be ‘strongly convicted’ of its effectiveness before ever adding anything to our required vaccination list. Months later they were rolling out the in-house Covid shot clinics and mandate for all healthcare workers.”
A series of town hall meetings, where Inova Loudoun’s CEO and chief medical officer were present, was set up to “answer” employee concerns regarding the vaccine mandates but yielded silencing and no real discussion, Walker said.
“The Zoom meeting was abruptly ended when other concerned health professionals unmuted themselves to raise their questions and concerns that were not being addressed.”
“While directors, doctors, and staff would agree with me behind closed doors, it was crickets when I would stick my neck out on Zoom calls defending the hundreds that were also up for termination,” Walker said. “Inova admin failed to entertain an interactive conversation. We were lectured for 30 mins by medical professionals and then had five minutes to raise our concerns that were met with ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ or ‘There are times in life when your morals don’t align with your organization and you need to part ways.’”
On July 26, 2021, Walker applied for and received a permanent Covid vaccine exemption, which stated, “You have been approved for permanent exemption for the COVID vaccines. … You will not need to reapply for the exemption or supply additional paperwork in the future.”
Fast forward to April 22, 2022. Walker’s previously “permanent” exemption had been voided by leadership, and she was forced to reapply. By then, Covid-19 was on a continual global decline.
“They stated that all prior approved exemptions were not denied and just needed to be ‘re-applied’ for,” Walker said. “They stated they changed the format of the religious exemption policy to include seven personal questions that had to be filled out by all who received prior granted exemptions.”
These exemptions were submitted to an anonymous group called the Exemption Committee and were told that it was a round table of four multi-disciplinary people to aid in an unbiased decision, Walker said.
“They responded to only emails they wanted to, refused to meet in person, and used copy paste responses when we asked for more data.”
Walker was not alone in refusing the vaccine and was directed to keep quiet about it by administrative officals, she said.
“At the time there was dwindling help in those willing to help run the ER, so I stepped up to be charge nurse more often,” Walker said.
After submitting her new exemption, Walker was told it could take weeks to hear back.
“We were deemed ‘compliant’ with the vaccine policy while the decision was pending,” Walker said. “Some would be pending for months. We often wonder if staffing was the reason they kept us pending for so long and as soon as they hired hundreds of new registered nurse graduates [across the Inova system], denials picked up in number.”
Each shift, Walker would log on, see if she was fired, and if not go lead her team in the ER.
“It was cruel,” Walker said. “I led the ER through the pandemic as a ‘hero’ and was now labeled a ‘life-threatening risk’ up for termination.”
Walker’s exemption was denied, and she was informed she would be fired on May 6, during National Nurses Week. In the meantime, she filed an appeal and during the second waiting process was promoted to the unit supervisor in role only. Due to being up for termination, she was denied “on-paper” recognition of that role.
Her appeal was denied again on Aug. 3. She had until Aug. 17 to be vaccinated; after that point she would receive seven days of unpaid administrative leave and be terminated on Sept. 7. She was terminated and fully removed from her registered nurse role in September.
Walker, like many former Inova employees, has now been assigned a case investigator by the attorney general.
Miyares’ office cannot comment on pending investigations.
As Virginia wraps up its first 2023 legislative session, Republican legislators sponsoring legislation to protect religious freedoms face continued resistance from a Democrat-majority Senate.
The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill sponsored by Del. Nick Frietas that would uphold religious exemptions to vaccines mandated by the state’s health commissioner during an epidemic. The Democrat-majority Senate passed the bill indefinitely in a subcommittee on Feb. 16, effectively killing it this session.
“I continue to encourage constituents facing religious discrimination to document and report their experiences as legal precedence to support health care workers gains ground in the courts,” LaRock said. “It is an ongoing legal battle to protect religious rights.”