Judge blocks US Covid-19 vaccine rule for health workers in 10 states

A protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates in New York City on Oct 28, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A federal judge on Monday (Nov 29) blocked in 10 states a Joe Biden administration vaccine requirement, finding the agency that issued the rule mandating healthcare workers get vaccinated against Covid-19 likely exceeded its authority.

The ruling by United States District Judge Matthew Schelp in St Louis prevents the US Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) from enforcing its vaccine mandate for healthcare workers until the court can hear legal challenges brought by the 10 states.

CMS in a statement said it was reviewing the ruling, adding that unvaccinated healthcare staff pose a threat to patient safety.

The ruling is the second legal setback for President Biden, who has focused on vaccines to halt the Covid-19 pandemic, a point he emphasised on Monday amid concerns about the spread of the new Covid-19 Omicron variant.

A federal appeals court in New Orleans earlier this month blocked a sweeping workplace mandate that requires businesses with at least 100 employees to get their staff vaccinated or tested weekly.

Republican state attorneys-general sued the administration in early November over the CMS rule, seeking to block the requirement because they alleged it would worsen healthcare staffing shortages.

Judge Schelp, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump, said CMS had understated the "overwhelming" cost of its mandate and by declining to submit the rule to public comment, the agency had fed the vaccine hesitancy that the rule is meant to counter.

The judge also said the CMS rule altered the balance of power between the federal and state governments.

"Congress did not clearly authorise CMS to enact this politically and economically vast, federalism-altering and boundary-pushing mandate, which Supreme Court precedent requires," he wrote.

Judge Schelp's ruling applied in the 10 states that brought the case: Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Hampshire.

On Nov 4, CMS issued the interim final rule it said covers more than 10 million people and applies to around 76,000 healthcare providers, including hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centres.

The rule requires health facilities to mandate that all employees, volunteers and contractors have a first vaccine dose by Dec 6 and to be fully vaccinated by Jan 4. Providers that fail to comply could lose access to Medicare and Medicaid funds.

Medicare serves people 65 and older and the disabled. Medicaid serves the poor.

In addition to the CMS rule and workplace vaccine requirement, the Biden administration imposed coronavirus vaccine rules on government contractors, military personnel and federal employees, which are all being challenged in court.

Courts have upheld mandates by private employers and state governments, which have helped to increase the rate of Covid-19 vaccination in the US.

Last Wednesday, the Biden administration said 92 per cent of US federal workers have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

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