Supreme Court hints at support for vaccine mandate for healthcare workers

The mandate for healthcare workers may have better prospects than a broader order covering the private sector. The Biden administration has set a Feb. 28 deadline for healthcare workers in 25 states to get vaccinated.

The vaccine mandate for healthcare workers finally reached the nation’s highest court Friday.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on the federal mandate requiring millions of healthcare workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The Biden administration’s order covers workers in healthcare facilities receiving federal aid. The court also heard a separate vaccine mandate covering businesses.

Some media accounts, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, reported that the vaccine order for healthcare workers had a better reception among the justices than the broader mandate covering larger businesses in the private sector.

The court is weighing emergency petitions to allow the mandates to go forward or block them. It’s unclear when the justices will reach a decision on the orders but some reports indicated they could decide quickly.

The justices surprised some observers when they agreed to an emergency hearing on the vaccine mandates, which have been the subject of fierce legal clashes in federal courts.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh both showed some acceptance of the argument that the federal government had the authority to impose a mandate in healthcare facilities receiving federal funds, The Post reported. Roberts noted the greater risk to patients of exposure to COVID-19.

Kavanaugh also pointed out that several states are challenging the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, but the facilities and employees weren't battling the requirement, CNN and others reported.

Justices also noted the overwhelming support of the healthcare industry for a vaccination requirement for healthcare workers, the Times reported.

The Biden administration argues the vaccine requirement for healthcare workers is a necessary tool to protect patients from COVID-19, which has claimed more than 800,000 American lives.

In a petition filed with the court, the federal government noted the rapid spread of the Omicron variant makes the mandate essential. The White House also argues that it has the authority to take steps to protect millions of patients in facilities receiving federal funds.

Opponents of the vaccine requirement for healthcare workers said the order infringes on individual liberties. They also argue it would hurt healthcare facilities that are already struggling with a staffing shortage. And they said it’s unfair to healthcare workers who have been working courageously during the pandemic.

The federal rule requires all employees at healthcare facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued the order, which covers 17 million healthcare workers, in November.

The government’s separate, broader order covers employers with 100 or more workers. That order, issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, requires employees to get vaccinated or submit to regular COVID-19 testing. It covers 84 million workers.

Both orders have been the subject of fierce legal battles. The mandate covering healthcare workers features one key difference: There is no testing option. Healthcare workers either must get the COVID-19 vaccine or face the loss of their job. There are limited religious and medical exemptions.

Court rulings have prohibited the federal government from enforcing the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers in 25 states. But the Biden administration, for now, can move forward in the other 25 states, unless the high court rules otherwise.

The CMS has set a timetable for the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers in those 25 states. They must get their first vaccine by Jan. 27 and must be fully vaccinated by Feb. 28.

Unless the court rules otherwise, the Feb. 28 vaccination deadline is in effect for healthcare workers in these states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Washington state, and Wisconsin.

The CMS said the vaccine order will not apply to these states where a federal court ruling has blocked the mandate: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Some states have imposed their own regulations compelling healthcare workers to get vaccinated in recent months. Two states - California and New Mexico - have required healthcare workers to get COVID-19 booster shots.

Both of the Biden administration’s vaccine orders were initially slated to take effect Jan. 4 but were delayed due to the court challenges.

The vaccine mandate for healthcare workers reached the court as the Omicron variant has led to an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases.

Hospital leaders across the country say they are facing an overwhelming number of patients with COVID-19. Some states are seeing hospitalizations at higher levels than at any point of the pandemic. In addition, hospitals have been hampered by staffing shortages, which have been exacerbated as many healthcare workers have been infected due to the Omicron variant.

The justices appeared to be less convinced the federal government has the authority to impose the broader order compelling private businesses to vaccinate their workers. Roberts said such a requirement should come from Congress or the states.

Healthcare organizations have urged support for the vaccine requirement covering larger businesses. They argued it's a crucial step to curbing the spread of COVID-19.