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November 16, 2021

U.S. Surgeon General on vaccine mandate lawsuits: A 'setback for public health'

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    A federal appeals court has upheld its decision to block the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for large U.S. employers—a move Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said would be "a setback for public health."

    Resource library: How health care organizations can navigate vaccine mandates and other issues

    The legal challenges against OSHA's Covid-19 vaccine mandate

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) earlier this month published an interim final rule requiring workers at all U.S. employers with 100 or more employees to either be vaccinated against Covid-19 by Jan. 4 or submit to weekly testing.

    OSHA's rule is expected to cover 84 million workers, and the Biden administration estimates that it will prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations and 6,500 deaths from Covid-19 over six months.

    However, since the rule was published, it has faced numerous legal challenges from Republican-led states, conservative legal groups, and advocacy organizations. Currently, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Louisiana on Saturday granted an emergency stay against OSHA's vaccine mandate, saying a suit against the mandate "g[a]ve cause to believe there are grave statutory and constitutional issues with the mandate."

    In response, the Department of Justice (DOJ) argued it has the legal authority to mandate Covid-19 vaccines or testing for larger companies and said stopping OSHA's rule would "likely cost dozens or even hundreds of lives per day."

    A federal court upholds its decision to block OSHA's rule

    The federal appeals court on Friday upheld its decision to block the federal vaccine mandate, the New York Times reports, arguing that OSHA "grossly exceed[ed]" its authority by implementing the rule.

    In addition, Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who is part of the panel that made the ruling, said it was "firmly in the public interest" to block OSHA's vaccine mandate. "From economic uncertainty to workplace strife, the mere specter of the mandate has contributed to untold economic upheaval in recent months," he said.

    So far, 27 states have filed lawsuits in at least six federal appeals courts against OSHA's rule, AP/Modern Healthcare reports. The cases will be consolidated, and one of the appeals courts where a challenge has been filed will be randomly chosen to hear it. According to the Times, the case is expected to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which will eventually make a final decision on the mandate.

    "Today's decision is just the beginning of the process for review of this important OSHA standard," said Dena Iverson, a spokesperson for DOJ. "The department will continue to vigorously defend the standard and looks forward to obtaining a definitive resolution following consolidation of all of the pending cases for further review."

    Blocking vaccine mandates would be 'a setback for public health'

    In an interview on "Fox News Sunday," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said it would be "a setback for public health" if courts continue to block OSHA's Covid-19 vaccine mandate.

    According to Murthy, vaccine mandates are well-established and highly effective at achieving widespread vaccination. Schools, the military, and many workplaces, including hospitals, have long required different vaccines, he said.

    Murthy also noted that many companies required Covid-19 vaccination for their employees even before OSHA's rule was implemented. According to the Times, 3M, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Tyson Foods, and United Airlines are among several large employers who have imposed vaccine mandates for their employees.

    Ultimately, Murthy said the purpose of vaccine mandates is to create "safer workplaces for workers, for customers and to increase vaccination rates overall, because that’s ultimately how we’re going to end this pandemic." (AP/Modern Healthcare, 11/14; Savage, New York Times, 11/12; Hoffman, New York Times, 11/15)

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