GAVEL

As reported by multiple sources, a Louisiana U.S. district judge has blocked a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers. On Tuesday, the judge issued a nationwide injunction, which is considered another setback to President Joe Biden’s effort to require wide segments of the population to be vaccinated.

Louisiana Western District U.S. Judge Terry Doughty’s decision follows an identical ruling Monday from Missouri U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp. That decision only covered 10 states.

The states that joined Louisiana in the lawsuit include Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia.

Doughty ruled on the lawsuit led by Republican Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and joined by 13 other states, but Doughty also added a nationwide injunction in his ruling.

Doughty’s decision stated the Biden Administration does not have the authority to bypass Congress in issuing such a mandate.

“If the executive branch is allowed to usurp the power of the legislative branch to make laws, two of the three powers conferred by our Constitution would be in the same hands,” he wrote. “If human nature and history teach anything, it is that civil liberties face grave risks when governments proclaim indefinite states of emergency. During a pandemic such as this one, it is even more important to safeguard the separation of powers set forth in our Constitution to avoid erosion of our liberties.”

The emergency regulation issued Nov. 4 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would have required staff at providers that participate in the programs to receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6 and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022.

Sidney Health Center (SHC) recently adopted the requirement and had informed staff members as well as contractors and others of the mandate. Those notified had until Dec. 5 to begin vaccination and until Jan. 4 to be fully vaccinated.

The decision by SHC to comply with the government’s mandate was met with resistance, including a protest along Central Avenue this past Sunday and a private meeting on Monday night to hear from state officials and set a strategy to defeat the mandate.

At that meeting, Montana State Attorney General Austin Knudsen told gatherers the state had joined the above mentioned lawsuit and outlined possible scenarios from that point on. While Knudsen answered a few questions on the state’s plan, he prefaced his statements by saying state law forbade him from giving legal advice.

The Sidney Herald contacted Sidney Health Center, who issued the following statement concerning the injunction.

Yesterday, Nov. 30, a federal district court in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction temporarily freezing of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services vaccine mandate set forth in the Nov. 5, 2021 Interim Final Rule (IFR).

“Upon receiving this news, we announced to our staff that we will not be enforcing the CMS COVID-19 vaccination mandate as previously communicated,” stated Jen Doty, Sidney Health Center Chief Executive Officer. “We will continue to watch the state and federal updates very closely and be transparent as changes in the regulations take place. We remain committed to our mission and providing medical care to residents living in our community and the surrounding area.”

The Montana Hospital Association also released a statement on the ruling, stating:

“Montana hospitals have an unwavering commitment to protect the health of our patients, our team members and the communities we serve. Hospitals have worked to comply with the federal COVID-19 vaccination requirement as a condition of providing care to the state’s 524,000 residents who are covered by Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP. With the federal COVID-19 vaccination requirement now on hold, Montana hospitals have ceased the implementation of the federal vaccine mandate and will focus on continued compliance with Montana state law.”

“Montana healthcare providers have been in the very difficult position of complying with conflicting state and federal laws. We value every one of our team members and it is unfortunate that they have been drawn into this conflict.”

The statement continued, saying, “It is important to point out that the plaintiffs in this recent legal challenge are 10 states including Montana and the defendant is the Biden administration. Hospitals are neither plaintiffs nor defendants in the cases. Hospitals were simply following the federal mandate as a Condition of Participation in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. We remain committed to protecting and providing healthcare for our communities while ensuring the financial viability of our hospitals.”

“The COVID-19 vaccine is a safe and effective tool for reducing disease and hospitalizations. Hospitals will continue to urge all eligible Montanans, including our healthcare staff, to get vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Had the mandate been enforced, it would have covered more than 17 million health care workers nationwide, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Earlier this month the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans blocked a broader Biden administration mandate that businesses with more than 100 workers require employees to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 or wear masks and be tested weekly. Landry was also the lead in that lawsuit.

Any appeals of Doughty’s Tuesday decision would also go to the 5th Circuit.

Doughty, who was nominated to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump in 2017 and confirmed in 2018, acknowledged the case “will ultimately be decided by a higher court than this one.”

“However, it is important to preserve the status quo in this case,” he wrote. “The liberty interests of the unvaccinated requires nothing less.”

In Montana, the Department of Public Health and Human Services applauded the decision by Doughty.

“The Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) is pleased that a federal court has issued an order granting a nationwide preliminary injunction against implementation of CMS’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, particularly in light of its legal shortcomings and the dire impact it would have on frontier states like Montana. With the court’s decision, House Bill 702, which makes discrimination on the basis of vaccination status unlawful, remains the law in Montana. Thus, Montana health care facilities cannot require staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19. DPHHS continues to encourage all eligible Montanans to talk to their trusted, personal health care provider and get vaccinated.” DPHHS Director Adam Meier

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued an interim final rule (IFR) on November 5, 2021, requiring COVID-19 vaccination of all eligible staff of health care facilities that participate in the Medicare or Medicaid programs. These health care facilities were required to ensure that all eligible staff receive the first dose of a 2-dose COVID-19 vaccine or a 1-dose COVID-19 vaccine by December 6, 2021 (and the second dose of a 2-dose vaccine by January 4, 2022), unless they received a medical or religious exemption. The State of Montana, along with a number of other states, challenged the CMS IFR in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana on November 15, 2021.

In a memorandum ruling issued on November 30, 2021, on the states’ motion for preliminary injunction, the district court concluded that Montana and the other states are likely to prevail in the lawsuit. Among other things, the court concluded the states are likely to prevail on the claims the federal defendants exceeded their authority in promulgating the IFR and that the rule is contrary to law and violates the Constitution.

Individuals seeking to file a vaccination status discrimination complaint can contact DLI’s Human Rights Bureau at 1-800-542-0807.

The Sidney Herald will update this story as more information becomes available.

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