A judge blocked the federal government on Monday from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers in Missouri and nine other states.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp in the Eastern District of Missouri wrote in his ruling that regulations handed down by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid earlier this month were issued improperly. The agency did not get approval from Congress to mandate vaccinations for health care workers, Schelp wrote, which he argued was necessary given the mandate's "vast economic and political significance." The rules were also issued without a standard period for public comment, which Schelp said the agency's justification for was not suitable.
"Truly, the impact of this mandate reaches far beyond COVID," Schelp wrote. "CMS seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans. Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism."
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Schelp also labeled the mandate "arbitrary and capricious," arguing that CMS "lacks evidence showing that vaccination status has a direct impact on spreading COVID" in the covered health care facilities; the agency has primarily pointed to data from long-term care facilities in its defense.
"No one questions that protecting patients and health care workers from contracting COVID is a laudable objective," he wrote. "But the court cannot, in good faith, allow CMS to enact an unprecedented mandate that lacks a 'rational connection between the facts found and the choice made.'"
A CMS spokesperson said Monday evening that the agency was aware of the court's decision and is reviewing the ruling.
"The vaccine requirement for health care workers addresses the risk of unvaccinated health care staff to patient safety and provides stability and uniformity across the nation's health care system," the spokesperson said. "Staff in any health care setting who remain unvaccinated pose both direct and indirect threats to patient safety and population health."
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt led the lawsuit, alongside Nebraska, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota and New Hampshire. Schelp's order blocks the federal government from requiring providers in those states to require vaccination for workers.
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Schmitt, a Republican running for U.S. Senate, called the ruling a "huge victory for health care workers in Missouri and across the country, including rural hospitals who were facing near certain collapse due to this mandate." Schmitt has been among the most vocal state-level opponents to Biden administration vaccine orders, also suing to block mandates for large private sector businesses and federal employees and contractors. Both of those mandates are under litigation in several courts, and the latter is currently blocked.
The workforces of many of the largest health care providers in Missouri are almost entirely vaccinated against COVID-19, due to internal requirements issued earlier this year. Mercy, which employs 40,000 and has facilities throughout the state, said Oct. 28 that 100 percent of staff members were fully vaccinated. Springfield-based CoxHealth said at the end of September that 85 percent of its 12,500 employees had received at least one dose or received an extension to get a vaccine. "Less than two percent" of Mercy's workforce did not get vaccinated, and approximately 50 Cox employees resigned due to its mandate.
Missouri ranks last in the nation for percentage of nursing home staff vaccinated against COVID — currently standing at 58.77%, according to data compiled by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid.
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This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: COVID vaccine mandate for Missouri health care workers blocked