• Madeleine Pearce

NY Vaccine Mandate for Healthcare Workers Temporarily Blocked

New York continues to struggle to join the growing number of states implementing vaccine mandates for healthcare workers after a judge issued a temporary and partial injunction against the state’s vaccine mandate for those claiming religious exemption.


The mandate requiring healthcare workers to receive vaccinations went into effect on Sept. 28th, 2021, but a judge issued the temporary and partial injunction shortly afterward.


A panel of three judges made the decision following a lawsuit involving three healthcare workers employed privately, one from Syracuse and two from Long Island, who argued the vaccine mandate violated their religious rights.


The law firm representing the healthcare workers released a statement condemning the mandate, writing "There is no public health exemption to the Bill of Rights. Governor Hochul demonstrated breathtaking arrogance this week when she told New Yorkers, ‘God wanted them to be vaccinated.’ We shudder to think that New York has a Governor who believes she has a direct pipeline to God. The Bill of Rights was enacted to ensure that sort of nonsense remains stillborn in the American Republic."


The lawsuit follows federal judge David Hurd’s decision to temporarily block the state of New York from requiring medical workers to receive vaccinations if they ask for an exemption based on religion on Sept. 14. The judge later extended the order until Oct. 12, 2021.


As a part of the lawsuit, 17 medical professionals argued that the mandate’s inability to claim a religious exemption violated their Constitutional rights. The all-Christian group included doctors and nurses, among other healthcare professionals.


Despite the initial case from Sept. 14, the panel of judges responsible for the Sept. 28 decision questioned the extent of the initial ruling.


"If it's true that a private employer has fired somebody for not getting vaccinated, that's not the state disregarding the [temporary restraining order]," Judge Robert Sack said.

Photo Credit: Financial Times

Despite legal obstacles, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and independent healthcare locations prepared for shortages in staff to meet the population’s medical needs. On Sept. 27, Hochul signed an order allowing medical personnel from other states and countries to work in New York. Under the order, retired personnel will also have the opportunity to work in the field.


New York City’s public system also employed an additional 500 nurses to staff clinics and hospitals, according to Dr. Mitchell Katz, president, and Chief Executive of NYC Health and Hospitals.


Individual hospitals and other healthcare locations prepared for losses in staff by canceling elective surgeries and restricting the number of new residents for nursing homes.


Hochul and supporters have continued to push for vaccine mandates, with an order blocking unvaccinated home health aides from working as of Oct. 8. The workers affected include employees in hospice care, assisted living, and other long-term care facilities. While 86% of home health aides had received vaccinations as of Oct. 10, non-compliant workers are expected to experience job loss.


"We've seen the reaction of families that they don't want us to come in if we're not vaccinated,” said CEO Linda Taylor of Visiting Nurses Service of Suffolk, who cares for about 3,000 patients. “They knew that come today; they would not be employed here if they could not be vaccinated."


According to state officials, while public and private healthcare systems in New York initiated changes to cope with staff losses, 92% of the approximately 665,000 affected nursing-home and hospital staff had been vaccinated as of Sept. 27. In addition, the percentage showed a definitive increase in vaccinations compared to the week before the mandate’s implementation, where approximately 84% of hospital employees received at least one dose of the vaccine.


Although the number of vaccinated healthcare workers increased significantly before implementing the mandate, New York’s largest health care employer Northwell Health still laid off 1,400 employees who did not comply with the vaccination mandate.


A spokesperson from Northwell Health stated they regret "losing any employee under such circumstances, but as health care professionals and members of the largest healthcare provider in the state, we understand our unique responsibility to protect the health of our patients and each other. Therefore, we owe it to our staff, our patients, and the communities we serve to be 100% vaccinated against COVID-19."


One of the three plaintiffs from the Syracuse and Long Island lawsuit was among the 1,400 laid off from Northwell Health. However, Northwell Health’s remaining 76,000 employees across over 830 hospitals and care centers have received vaccinations in compliance with the mandate.


While more workers across the country claim religious exemptions as more states enact vaccine mandates, no major religion has publicly opposed vaccines. On the contrary, Pope Francis has called receiving the COVID-19 vaccine an “act of love.”


"Vaccination is a simple but profound way of promoting the common good and caring for each other, especially the most vulnerable,” said the Pope in an Ad Council video in August.


The Vatican also announced it is morally acceptable to receive the vaccine.


However, Christians in lawsuits opposed to the mandates argue the vaccine’s development was immoral because it involved using isolated cells from fetal tissue, some of which had been obtained from aborted fetuses.


Historically, religious exemptions to vaccine mandates have not held up well in court. However, the 1905 Supreme Court Case Jacobson v. Massachusetts established state legislatures were authorized to enact vaccine mandates, setting a precedent for current reactions to the pandemic. Religious exemption arguments have struggled to gain traction under the precedent because the mandates do not directly target any specific faith, thereby maintaining a separation between church and state and causing judges to dismiss cases.


“They’re claiming religious exemptions, but the underlying religion in question doesn’t provide an exemption,” said Glenn Cohen, a former DOJ appellate lawyer and health law professor at Harvard Law.


Still, Hochul and mandate supporters have continued to prioritize mandates for healthcare workers across all departments.


Following the implementation of the healthcare worker vaccine mandate, Hochul stated standing “firm on the vaccine mandate for health care workers is simply the right thing to do to protect our vulnerable family members and loved ones from COVID-19.”