President Joe Biden's bid to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates among healthcare personnel hit a roadblock when a federal judge halted its enforcement Tuesday.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services published an interim final rule this month that effectively made COVID-19 inoculations a condition of participation in Medicare and Medicaid, meaning healthcare employers that don't comply by mandating shots risk losing reimbursements from those programs.
Under the rule, an estimated 17 million workers at 76,000 healthcare sites needed to have received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Dec. 6 and to be fully immunized by Jan. 4.
That regulation is on hold after Judge Terry Doughty of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction halting it. Republican officials from 14 states filed the lawsuit challenging the vaccine mandate. Officeholders from Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia initiated the legal challenge.
"This matter will ultimately be decided by a higher court than this one. However, it is important to preserve the status quo in this case. The liberty interests of the unvaccinated require nothing less," Doughty wrote in his ruling.
CMS's rule for healthcare workplaces and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's regulation for employers with at least 100 workers are key elements of Biden's COVID-19 response, and have been subject to numerous lawsuits.
The Louisiana federal judge's decision came a day after a federal judge in Missouri paused the CMS rule in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming as part of a separate lawsuit. A federal judge in Florida rejected that state government's attempt to block the healthcare worker mandate last week.
In addition to federal rules requiring healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, a number of states have enacted similar mandates. A dozen states mandate vaccinations and another three require that healthcare employees be inoculated or be tested weekly. Another dozen states have outlawed employer vaccine mandates. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request by healthcare employees in Maine to stop that state's rule last month.
In practice, vaccine mandates in healthcare settings have been effective, but the results vary by geography and provider type.
Some hospitals and health systems that instituted vaccination requirements prior to state and federal actions saw significant successes. Overall, 70% of hospital workers had been vaccinated as of mid-September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But vaccination rates at rural healthcare employers, in particular, have lagged. Healthcare companies haven't been outspoken against the mandates, but many have expressed concern that these rules can worsen the ongoing staffing shortage facing hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies and others.