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Federal judge blocks Biden administration COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health workers

Eric Schmitt, Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis. Schmitt held the press conference after a federal judge temporarily blocked the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for most health care workers.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks Monday after a federal judge temporarily blocked the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for most health care workers in Missouri and nine other states.

A federal judge in St. Louis on Monday temporarily barred the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from requiring health care workers in Missouri and nine other states to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The states, which include Kansas, Arkansas and Iowa, sued President Joe Biden’s administration after it ordered most health care workers to get the vaccine to protect their colleagues and patients.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp ordered the rule be put on hold in the states that sued while the lawsuit proceeds, based in part on the strength of the plaintiffs’ case. He wrote that federal law likely does not give the agency the power to make those decisions.

The rule is an example of overreach that has frustrated many Missourians, Attorney General Eric Schmitt said.

“This issue is about the federal government overstepping its bounds,” he said. “That’s why it’s a significant ruling. … They can make these decisions themselves. They’re tired of these bureaucrats making big decisions.”

In early November, the federal government ordered all Medicare- and Medicaid-certified providers to ensure that every volunteer, employee and contractor working in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities get the COVID-19 vaccine by early 2022.

Unvaccinated health care workers put their patients at risk, federal officials said when they announced the rule early this month. For example, in the early months of the pandemic, a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes.

The four major hospital systems in the St. Louis region set their own vaccination requirements before the federal government put its rules in place.

Hospitals, long-term care facilities and other health care facilities have for decades required staff to be vaccinated against common contagious diseases including the flu and measles.

Individual businesses should have the right to set vaccination mandates, Schmitt said. But the federal government should not set those rules.

“My hope is there’s an awakening happening in this country,” he said.

The preliminary injunction issued by Schelp puts the requirement on hold until either the judge or a trial decides the future of the rule.

In his ruling, Schelp wrote that the federal rule is so broad that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unlawfully issued it without support from Congress. The ruling also says the agency failed to adequately show how the rule would affect transmission rates inside health care facilities.

States are also likely to suffer “irrevocable harm” if the mandate isn’t put on hold, the judge wrote. The rule is difficult to enforce, and it’s possible that workers in already short-staffed facilities would quit if required to get the vaccine, he wrote.

Mark Parkinson, president of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, said in a statement that the organization would always support vaccinations for workers at nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

“However, we are deeply concerned that nursing homes in vaccine hesitant communities will lose staff at a time when we are already grappling with a historic labor crisis," Parkinson wrote in response to Monday’s decision. "We continue to urge CMS to allow a regular testing option for unvaccinated staff and, therefore, support any legal remedy or CMS action that would bring about this solution.”

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.