Biden vaccine rule for health workers blocked in 10 states, including Alaska

A federal judge on Monday blocked President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a coronavirus vaccine mandate on thousands of health care workers in 10 states that had brought the first legal challenge against the requirement.

The states include Alaska, though health care officials here said Monday that the injunction doesn’t apply to thousands of workers at numerous hospitals that already require employees to be vaccinated.

The court order said that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid had no clear authority from Congress to enact the vaccine mandate for providers participating in the two government health care programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.

The preliminary injunction by St. Louis-based U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp applies to a coalition of suing states that includes Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Similar lawsuits also are pending in other states.

The federal rule requires COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 17 million workers nationwide in about 76,000 health care facilities and home health care providers that get funding from the government health programs. Workers are to receive their first dose by Dec. 6 and their second shot by Jan. 4.

Many of Alaska’s large health care facilities already enacted vaccine requirements, so the injunction doesn’t apply to them, hospital officials say. That includes Providence Alaska Medical Center, the state’s largest hospital, a spokesperson said Monday.

Other facilities that already require their employees to be vaccinated include Alaska Native Medical Center, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital and numerous others around the state from Southeast to Nome.

All have reported high percentages of employees choosing to get vaccinated rather than lose or leave their jobs.

Monday’s injunction does, however, potentially halt work on vaccine requirements at facilities that have been “working to create their policies and procedures for coming into compliance” including how to grant medical or religious exemptions, said Jared Kosin, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

“All of that work has been underway,” Kosin said. “What this does is it ... puts them into the position of now having to decide, should they move forward even though the rule will not be enforced against them?”

Hospitals in the midst of the transition in Alaska that potentially fall under the injunction include Alaska Regional Hospital and Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

A spokeperson for Alaska Regional said hospital leadership was reviewing the decision Monday.

Mat-Su Regional continues “to strongly encourage vaccination because patients hospitalized with COVID-19 infections who are vaccinated have better outcomes than patients who are not vaccinated,” spokesperson Alan Craft said in a statement Monday. “The majority of our caregivers have already chosen to be vaccinated and more are making that choice now.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how the injunction will play out in the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities beyond those operated in conjunction with hospitals already requiring vaccines.

The court order against the health care vaccine mandate comes after Biden’s administration suffered a similar setback for a broader policy. A federal court previously placed a hold on a separate rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or else wear masks and get tested weekly for the coronavirus.

Biden’s administration contends federal rules supersede state policies prohibiting vaccine mandates and are essential to slowing the pandemic.

But the judge in the health care provider case wrote that federal officials likely overstepped their legal powers.

“CMS seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans. Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism,” Schelp wrote in his order.

Even under an exceedingly broad interpretation of federal powers, “Congress did not clearly authorize CMS to enact the this politically and economically vast, federalism-altering, and boundary-pushing mandate,” Schelp wrote.

This story was compiled from reports by the Associated Press and Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander.