Supreme Court blocks federal vaccine mandate on businesses, health care mandate still effective but draws concern

Coronavirus

INDIANAPOLIS — The U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to block the Biden administration’s federal vaccine mandate, which applies to large businesses.

Under the OSHA rule, businesses, with 100 or more workers, would’ve required employees to be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID testing and wear masks.

Though the court’s decision does not completely overturn the rule, it does prevent it from being enforced while legal challenges are being decided.

However, the court did decide to uphold another portion of the mandate, which applies to most health care facilities.

It requires health care providers, that receive Medicaid or Medicare funds, to require vaccinations for employees. It also allows medical and religious exemptions.

“When you’re playing the percentages, it’s going to hit the big players, which is really what they’re after,” said Professor Nicolas Terry, Indiana University McKinney School of Law.

Terry says this impacts most providers and would overrule any state law looking to do the opposite. However, Terry says there is some gray area in defining some facilities that apply.

“It’s a slam dunk that it applies to hospitals and nursing homes, but it’s less clear that it would apply, for example, to your primary care provider’s office. So there’s some wiggle room there,” he added.

Meanwhile, some health care advocates say the mandate comes at a concerning time as COVID cases are surging and staffing is limited at many facilities.

“We’ve known all along, and supported very much, employers and health care providers use of the vaccine to fight COVID-19. We know that it is the best tool in the toolbox,” said Zach Cattell, President of the Indiana Health Care Association.

“The mandate, however, and the enforcement guidelines that are part of that mandate, while it does provide a pathway are also pretty penal and is very much a threat to adequate staffing,” he added.

Despite having 73% vaccinated staff, which Cattell says is about 18 points higher than the state’s general population, he says he’s also concerned about the mandate’s impact on rural areas, where vaccination uptake is lagging.

On top of that, he says the Omicron variant itself continues to impact the system as it evades defenses.

“If you’re vaccinated and boosted, the severity of illness is much less on the individual. So it’s still an important tool,” Cattell said, “but Omicron is evading the vaccine insofar that a lot of vaccinated and boosted individuals are also getting the variant, testing positive. So within the way the mandate works, the enforcement of it, that provides quite a trick box.”

“Nonetheless, the variant, and the impact on the health care system right now, is really producing a lot of demands on everybody, on everyone at the frontline who is providing care, and we need to continue to support those who are on the frontlines providing care and make sure that they’ve got the tools necessary to do so,” he added.

While Cattell agrees the vaccine is the best tool in fighting the virus, he says facilities can’t afford losing help when it’s already limited, regardless of the person’s decision to be vaccinated.

“Misinformation, or personal belief at this point, it is their belief. That’s their decision, and some have just said nothing is going to convince them,” Cattell said. “Infection control practices, masking, face shields, handwashing, all of the things that you’re supposed to do can still be effective in preventing virus transmission, and we need those individuals right now, just as more than ever, because the staff is so thin in many instances that even losing one person is difficult.”

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