Mississippi leaders, health care officials and employees expressed relief Wednesday over a decision this week by a Louisiana federal judge that temporarily blocks a federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers.
If enforced, the mandate would lead to the termination of a notable chunk of Mississippi Gulf Coast health care professionals because of worker or health system non-compliance at a time when one of the nation’s most vaccine-hesitant regions is desperate to retain and attract nurses.
“We are pleased that rationality, logic and humanity are prevailing over political division. While we are in favor of vaccinations, we are not in favor of a mandate,” Singing River CEO Lee Bond said in a statement to the Sun Herald on Wednesday.
The Pascagoula-based health care system was prepared to reject the mandate and therefore sustain Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service fines and face removal from key federal insurance programs. Bond had said he didn’t know if Singing River would have been able to operate amid those losses.
“The divisive concept of terminating a percentage of the people who have been heroes over the past two years, especially during the greatest labor shortage in our lifetime, was preposterous. We can now stay focused on the big picture which is our highest calling: to save lives.”
Louisiana Western District U.S. Judge Terry Doughty’s decision comes days before Mississippi Gulf Coast health care workers needed to receive their first shot of a two-dose COVID vaccination series in order to meet the requirement for full vaccination by Jan. 4, 2022.
“Big news for health care workers impacted by the Biden-CMS vaccine mandates. In response to the lawsuit that Mississippi filed, the courts have put a preliminary stop to its enforcement nationwide. These vaccines work, but stopping lawless mandates is a big win for freedom!” Republican Governor Tate Reeves tweeted after the decision was announced on Tuesday.
Memorial at Gulfport Human Resources Director Tony Alves said the Coast’s other leading health system was “pleased” with the court’s decision.
“The injunction is a big win for the stability not only of our health care system, but the health care industry as a whole, as we work to maintain and add to the health care heroes who provide necessary care for our loved ones, visitors, and community each and every day,” he said.
“We are working diligently to combat staffing shortages, and the CMS mandate would have exacerbated the labor strains that we, like so many other health care systems in Mississippi and across the country, are currently experiencing.”
Memorial was preparing to comply with the CMS mandate if the courts didn’t block the requirement, though they hoped for a suspension of the mandate.
“Essentially, we have to comply with it. We’re going to do that just so we can continue to give the health care that we’re duty-bound to provide for our neighbors, our families, our loved ones, the community,” Alves told the Sun Herald last week.
In a letter sent last week to Memorial Hospital employees, CEO and President Kent Nicaud said the hospital would push back the vaccination deadline, however.
“As we continue to watch this rapidly evolving situation, it has become necessary to defer the date for receiving the first vaccine injection to January 4, 2022,” he wrote.
“We believe that this will give those individuals who are hesitant to accept the vaccine time to confer with their medical provider, religious leaders and families to make the best possible decision and, at the same time, allow more time for the CMS litigation involving the state of Mississippi to unfold.”
Merit Health, a Coastal health system poised to comply with the mandate, said it is “aware” of the temporary injunction but has continued to encourage vaccination for their workers, especially as new variants roll out. The United States’ first confirmed case of the newly emerging Omicron variant was identified in California on Wednesday.
“We continue to strongly encourage vaccination since it offers the most protection from COVID-19 and emerging new variants. The majority of our caregivers already have chosen to be vaccinated and more are choosing to be vaccinated now,” a Merit Health spokesperson wrote in a statement.
“Our hospital remains committed to maintaining a safe environment for our patients and caregivers which includes following CDC guidelines for masking of all providers, patients and visitors, and routine testing for any unvaccinated staff members.”
Louisiana-based Ochsner Health, which has a sizable presence along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in August announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its physicians, providers and employees, saying they were required to be vaccinated by October.
Case decided on Monday
Doughty’s decision to temporarily block the mandate comes a day after a similar ruling from Missouri which covered 10 states, excluding Mississippi.
The federal judge based in Louisiana ruled on the lawsuit, led by Republican Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and joined by Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and 12 other states, and added a nationwide injunction to block mandates nationwide.
Nationally, about a third of health care systems said they’re prepared to operate with their staff at the start of next year if those workers don’t comply with the federal CMS mandate, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“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,” Doughty wrote in his ruling. “If human nature and history teach anything, it is that civil liberties face grave risks when governments proclaim indefinite states of emergency.”
The temporary injunction is the second court decision blocking federal vaccine mandates for South Mississippi workers.
The Biden administration has previously set vaccine mandates for federal workers, contractors and private businesses over 100 employees. In November, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana temporarily suspended the requirement that private business workers be vaccinated by Jan. 4.
Pascagoula-based Ingalls Shipbuilding, one of the largest federal contractors along the Coast, recently suspended its vaccine requirement so as to not lose a significant portion of its workforce. A lawsuit filed by Mississippi challenging the mandate for federal contractors is also pending.
Health care workers resisting the mandate are relieved
Memorial Hospital X-ray technician Ashley Miles said she was “extremely happy” with the news that the mandate was temporarily blocked. The single mom of two young children was holding out on receiving her shots, weighing the options of termination and thus losing her pension with her conviction not to get vaccinated.
Miles has worked at Memorial for 17 years.
I am “very relieved. For now. I don’t think this is quite over but it’s a start,” she said.
“I’m gonna fight it as long as I can. I’m a single mom with two kids. And I kind of need my job. But at the same time, I have prayed so hard and hard about this, and I do not feel right getting this vaccine. You know, it just, it doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve lived my life normally for two years. I travel a lot, I go places there are thousands of people who don’t wear masks and not once have even been sick.”
Memorial certified nursing assistant Megan Jordan said the decision made her hopeful. The single mother has worked at the Gulfport hospital for a year and has gotten COVID twice. She will not get the vaccine.
I am “hopeful, but still have to hold the line and stand strong. It’s a win, but we still have another court hearing. Hoping we prevail there as well. It should not even have to come to this,” said Jordan.
The nursing assistant is planning on attending a Saturday rally against the CMS mandate held by Gulf Coast Against Mandates, a popular Facebook group responsible for the planning of the widely attended Ingalls and Stennis rallies against vaccines for federal contractors.
“I believe in natural immunity. You know, it’s one of those things of when you start injecting things into the body, that it starts intertwining the genetics, and things like that, and you start altering your own DNA, it makes it very hard for your body and your immune system to actually be able to fight other things. Because now you’ve altered it to a point that it doesn’t know, good from bad,” she said.
The vaccine also does not in any way “change or interact” with DNA, according to the CDC. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which use mRNA, and J&J, which is a viral vector vaccine, “deliver instructions (genetic material) to our cells to start building protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.”