Resident Marion Kuefner, 93, prepares to be given the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Cottages of Lake St. Louis Retirement Center in Lake St. Louis, Missouri. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 29 (UPI) -- A federal judge on Monday blocked the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for healthcare workers in Missouri and nine other states.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp in the Eastern District of Missouri, who was nominated by then-President Donald Trump in 2019, wrote in his 32-page ruling that Congress did not grant the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, authority to mandate the vaccine.
Congress' approval was necessary for the mandate, given its "vast economic and political significance," he wrote.
"Truly, the impact of this mandate reaches far beyond COVID," Schelp also wrote in the ruling. "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."
He also indicated that the vaccine mandate may lead to staffing shortages.
"The scale falls clearly in favor of healthcare facilities operating with some unvaccinated employees, staff, trainees, students, volunteers, and contractors, rather than the swift, irremediable impact of requiring healthcare facilities to choose between two undesirable choices -- providing substandard care or providing no healthcare at all," he wrote.
Schelp's order will block the mandate in Missouri and nine other states, which joined the suit, including Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and New Hampshire.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, who led the lawsuit, told Springfield News-Leader the ruling was a "huge victory for healthcare workers in Missouri and across the country, including rural hospitals who were facing near certain collapse due to this mandate."
The mandate for approximately 76,000 providers, covering 17 million healthcare workers across the country, requires all eligible staff to have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6, and two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or the one dose of Johnson & Johnson to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, of next year.
A White House report showed that during the spread of the Delta variant, cases, hospitalizations and deaths were roughly two-and-a-half times higher in states with low vaccination rates compared to high-vaccination states.
Small business employee hours also grew faster and stayed higher during the rise of the Delta variant in states with higher working-age vaccination rates compared to states with lower vaccination rates, the report added.
"Ensuring patient safety and protection from COVID-19 has been the focus of our efforts in combatting the pandemic and the constantly evolving challenges we're seeing," said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement on Nov. 4, when the emergency regulation was issued. "Today's action addresses the risk of unvaccinated health care staff to patient safety and provides stability and uniformity across the nation's health care system to strengthen the health of people and the providers who care for them."
Schelp noted that the situation was "novel and messy," but "it remains unclear that COVID-19 -- however tragic and devastating the pandemic has been -- posed the kind of grave danger that justifies the federal government trampling on sovereign state rights."
"Regardless, disrupting this balance of power must have been expressly authorized by Congress," he added.
Schelp also argued that the mandate was "arbitrary and capricious," writing that "CMS lacks evidence showing that vaccination status has a direct impact on spreading COVID in the mandate's covered health care facilities."
The CMS has offered data from long-term care facilities (LTC's), nursing homes, but Schelp argued the agency could not "extrapolate" that data to other Medicare and Medicaid facilities covered by the mandate.
"While a wide-sweeping mandate might make sense in the context of LTCs, based on CMS' evidence, CMS presents no similar evidence for imposing a broad-sweeping mandate on the other 14 covered facilities," he wrote.
Mercy, which employs 40,000 and has facilities statewide, said last month that 100% of staff members were fully vaccinated, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
Missouri's nursing home staff vaccination rate stands at 58.77%, ranking last in the nation for percentage vaccinated, according to CMS data.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced Monday that the deadline to vaccinate federal workers would be extended until next year, adding that 96.5% of the 3.5 million employee workforce has already complied with the mandate.
The deadline was "not a cliff," a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget said, adding "our goal is to protect workers, not penalize anyone."
The announcement came amid Biden speaking from the White House about the new Omicron variant.
Biden said the new variant was a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic," and urged all unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Last week, a federal judge rejected Florida's request to block the same federal mandate for healthcare workers.
The healthcare workers vaccine mandate is among other vaccine mandates the Biden administration has issued to curb the spread of COVID-19, which have led to court challenges.
Earlier this month, an appeals court extended a hold on enforcement of the Biden administration's vaccine-or-test mandate for private businesses with 100 employees or more, pending judicial review.
The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the mandate for employees of such private business, which contains an exception for unvaccinated employees who agree to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a mask.
According to Bloomberg's COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, 59.1% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, 11.3% has a booster dose, and nearly 70% have received at least one dose.
The United States has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths worldwide at over 48 million cases and over 777,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University tracker.