Federal court halts health-care vaccine requirement

WYOMING – A preliminary injunction issued in District Court will halt the vaccine requirement for health-care workers as implemented by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The pause, issued by the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, applies only to the 10 states that joined a lawsuit combating the requirement – including Wyoming.

Gov. Mark Gordon announced last month that, upon consulting with Attorney General Bridget Hill, Wyoming would join the coalition of states challenging President Joe Biden and his administration’s vaccine requirements on a three-pronged strategy. This halt comes as a second temporary legal victory for Gordon’s administration, as its legal challenge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s requirement for vaccines or weekly testing for businesses with over 100 employees has been paused as well.

“This is welcome news for Wyoming’s rural health-care facilities, which are already facing staffing challenges without additional unconstitutional burdens being placed on their employees by the federal government,” Gov. Gordon said in a statement. “’Health-care employees should not be forced to choose between vaccination and termination.”

The CMS rule would have required certain employees, volunteers and contract workers across health-care facilities receiving Medicaid or Medicare funding to receive at least the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines before Dec. 6.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp stated in his ruling that CMS lacked authority to issue such a requirement and pointed at lack of staffing claims made by the plaintiffs as reasons for the halt.

“In sum, plaintiffs’ evidence shows that facilities – rural facilities in particular – likely would face crisis standards of care or will have no choice but to close to new patients or close altogether, both of which would cause significant, and irreparable, harm to plaintiffs’ citizens,” the judge wrote.

A Louisiana court also issued a preliminary injunction against the vaccine mandate for health-care workers, which covers 40 states.

Gordon’s office pointed to a line in Schelp’s ruling where a loss of staffing would affect care and restrict rural staffs’ abilities to save lives.

“The public has an interest in maintaining the ‘status quo’ while the merits of the case are determined,” Schelp wrote.

The 32-page recent court ruling also questioned effectiveness of the vaccines, stating the “public would suffer little, if any, harm from maintaining the ‘status quo’ through the litigation of this case.”

Schelp referenced this repeatedly in his order, weighing that with the staffing issues that would face some rural health-care facilities.

“While, according to CMS, the effectiveness of the vaccine to prevent disease transmission by those vaccinated is not currently known, what is known based on the evidence before the Court is that the mandate will have a crippling effect on a significant number of health-care facilities in plaintiffs’ states, especially in rural areas,” he wrote.

Sublette County, as rural as it gets among the states involved in the litigation, has battled with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and continues to face hurdles.

The Sublette County Hospital District’s Board of Trustees discussed staffing shortages at its October meeting, as previously reported in the Roundup. New hires have been made since, as well as innovative thinking to expand the abilities of current staff members.

During that stretch, Sublette County Public Health has confirmed at least one death related to COVID-19 in its weekly update. One of those updates specifically stated multiple county residents were transported daily to regional health-care facilities for further care.

Going into this week, Sublette County claimed a 32.39-percent vaccination rate (3,184 residents), according to statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health. There was no Public Health update issued last week because of Thanksgiving.

In tandem with the county’s low vaccination rate, required vaccination pertaining to the CMS mandate was a heavily discussed topic at the November SCHD Board of Trustees’ meeting. As reported in a previous Roundup, the majority of the board present didn’t want to require staff to be vaccinated, with some even asking if this was the time to “dig in (their) heels” against such an order. Hospital District staff opposed any potential requirement, with some threatening to quit should that be requirement be implemented.

At that meeting, Star Valley Health and Hospital District COO Mike Hunsacker said losing vital Medicaid and Medicare funding would severely limit the ability to “care for its most vulnerable citizens.”

Ultimately, the board suggested alternative testing options for SCHD staff and that it would closely watch litigation against the CMS order. The District Court’s halt of that order at least gives time to postponed implementation of vaccine or testing requirements.

The court’s ruling comes at the same time concerns of the Omicron variant have forced other countries to reinstitute travel bans.

The Delta variant swept through Wyoming, forcing hospitals to capacities matched only by the initial surge last winter. From Sept. 20 to Oct. 17, the American Association of Retired Persons reported Wyoming had the second-highest rate of nursing home deaths due to COVID-19 in the nation. The Wyoming Department of Health confirmed Delta was the dominant variant in the state on July 25, two days after Sublette County Public Health issued an update saying Delta was confirmed in lab specimens from the county. That same update reported a new outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the Sublette Center, forcing it to close out of abundance of caution.

That July 23 Public Health briefing reported 833 total cases of the virus with seven deaths. As of the Nov. 19 update, Public Health reported 1,423 total cases and 22 deaths.