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Judge halts vaccine rule for health care workers after Kansas, Missouri sued

Kansas City Star logo Kansas City Star 11/30/2021 Jeanne Kuang, The Kansas City Star
Judge Matthew T. Schelp of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri halted enforcement Monday of the Biden administration’ s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for most health care workers in Kansas and Missouri. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/TNS Judge Matthew T. Schelp of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri halted enforcement Monday of the Biden administration’ s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for most health care workers in Kansas and Missouri.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — A federal judge in St. Louis halted enforcement Monday of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for most health care workers in Kansas and Missouri, a week before the deadline for staff to get their first shot under the rules.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, along with officials of eight other states, sought the injunction in a lawsuit filed earlier this month targeting directives issued by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The rules require health care providers participating in Medicare or Medicaid, including nursing homes and hospitals, to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated against COVID by Jan. 4.

The rule is expected to cover some 76,000 facilities and 17 million employees nationally.

Both Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, and Schmidt, who is running for Kansas governor, argued that the rule would cost short-staffed hospitals more workers. They bolstered their argument with the comments of a Memphis, Mo. hospital CEO who told CNN the mandate would prompt workers to quit rather than get the shot.

Judge Matthew T. Schelp of the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri agreed, writing Monday that the Biden administration did not have the legal authority to issue the rule and did not consider alternative rules for workers who have already been infected. He halted rule in the 10 states that sued.

Schelp wrote that the vaccine mandate would cause “harm to the physical health and well-being of [the plaintiff] states’ citizens.”

“In balancing the equities, the scale falls clearly in favor of healthcare facilities operating with some unvaccinated employees, staff, trainees, students, volunteers, and contractors, rather than the swift, irremediable impact of requiring healthcare facilities to choose between two undesirable choices — providing substandard care or providing no healthcare at all,” he wrote.

Asked about the decision Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki encouraged health care companies to mandate vaccination on their own.

“We’re obviously going to abide by the law and fight any efforts in court or otherwise to prevent local authorities, officials, leaders in the health care industry and other industries from protecting their workforces,” Psaki said. “Individual companies and health care leaders and others can put in place requirements in order to protect their workforce. That’s something that a number of companies, a number of health care providers across the country have done and done successfully.”

The injunction came as scientists rushed to learn more about the Omicron variant of the virus that was discovered last week in South Africa.

Missouri is last in the nation for the percentage of nursing home staff that are vaccinated against COVID, at 58.7%. Kansas is in the bottom third at 68% of staff.

Most Missouri health care systems, with hospitals concentrated in urban and suburban areas, have already implemented their own mandates, while some independent and rural hospitals are “holdouts,” Dave Dillon, spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association, told The Star this month. Hospitals also commonly require staff to be immunized against the flu and other illnesses.

Dillon said Monday the association was still determining the implications of the injunction if it is upheld by higher courts.

A spokeswoman for CMS said the agency is “reviewing” the injunction.

“Health care workers have a special ethical and professional duty to protect their patients,” she said. “The vaccine requirement for health care workers addresses the risk of unvaccinated health care staff to patient safety and provides stability and uniformity across the nation’s health care system.”

Rates of staff vaccination nationwide are stagnating, according to the agency, at roughly 67% for nursing homes and 64% for hospitals.

Both Kansas and Missouri attorneys general have separately challenged other federal directives requiring large businesses to ensure their workers are vaccinated and that federal contractors employ vaccinated staff. That rule, too, was halted this month after a court decision in a lawsuit brought by other states.

Schmitt and Schmidt also are involved in separate, pending litigation seeking to halt a third Biden administration vaccine rule, for federal contractors. Public university systems are among the largest employers in both Kansas and Missouri to agree to comply with that rule, announcing in recent weeks they will require staff to be vaccinated to avoid jeopardizing millions of dollars in federal research and health care grants.

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