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Federal vaccine rule for health workers blocked in 10 states, including Nebraska
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Federal vaccine rule for health workers blocked in 10 states, including Nebraska

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President Joe Biden will enforce a federal mandate that workers at U.S. companies with at least 100 employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly starting on Jan. 4, a reprieve to businesses facing labor shortages during the holiday season, U.S. officials said on Thursday. Conway G. Gittens reports.

A federal judge in Missouri on Monday temporarily blocked President Joe Biden's administration from enforcing a vaccine mandate from going into effect for health care workers in Nebraska and nine other states.

Judge Matthew T. Schelp of the Eastern District of Missouri granted the injunction against the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which announced the emergency regulation on Nov. 5.

The rule required employees, trainees, contractors and others working at 15 categories of health care providers covered under Medicare and Medicaid to get either a one-dose COVID vaccine, or receive the first of a two-dose regimen by Dec. 6.

Employees would have been required to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. The regulations included exemptions for medical conditions or religious beliefs.

In granting the injunction, Schelp, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said the lawsuit brought by 10 states would be likely to succeed on its merits.

The federal judge said Congress did not provide CMS the authority to enact the emergency regulations, nor did the agency follow the proper rule-making procedure in announcing the mandate.

While CMS has extensive data indicating the effectiveness of vaccinations in slowing the spread of COVID in long-term care facilities, Schelp said the agency could not demonstrate similar results in the 14 other categories of centers it manages.

Schelp said CMS would be able to enforce a properly authorized and enacted rule mandating vaccines, but said the agency has overstepped its authority in issuing the emergency order.

"The public has an interest in stopping the spread of COVID. No one disputes that," he wrote in the order. "But the court concludes that the public would suffer little, if any, harm from maintaining the 'status quo' through the litigation of this case."

On Monday afternoon, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said the order will help rural hospitals that were facing "serious impacts due to this mandate."

"While we do anticipate the federal government will seek immediate review by the Eighth Circuit, we are confident that the analysis by the trial court will be confirmed," Peterson said in a statement.

Providers in Nebraska like York General Health Care Services, where 78% of the 500 employees are vaccinated against COVID, said the mandate would have had dramatic consequences on its workforce.

"About 100 individuals are not fully vaccinated," CEO Jim Ulrich said last week, according to the York News-Times. "Some will likely get vaccinated, some may get exemptions, but we have the potential of losing a number of very valuable employees."

Several large health care systems in Nebraska, including three in Lincoln, enacted their own vaccine requirements in August, months before the Biden administration announced the emergency regulation.

On Nov. 1, Bryan Health in Lincoln said 10 of its more than 5,500 employees resigned or were terminated after declining to get vaccinated. Another 300 employees were granted an exemption requiring them to get tested weekly.

Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital reported 93% of its more than 2,100 employees have been fully vaccinated, according to a spokesman.

Earlier this month, CHI Health, which includes St. Elizabeth in Lincoln, said some 92% of its approximately 12,000 employees were either fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or have applied for and received a medical or religious exemption. 

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' emergency regulations applied to roughly 17 million health care workers at 76,000 providers nationwide. 

In addition to Nebraska, the other states covered by the injunction granted Monday are Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Nine of the 10 attorneys general are Republicans; Iowa's attorney general is a Democrat.

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.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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