Federal judge upholds Cincinnati health care system's COVID vaccine mandate

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A federal judge ruled Friday that a health care provider serving the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati region can issue mandates requiring its more than 10,000 employees to get vaccinated or risk termination.

Why it matters: It's the latest ruling to uphold U.S. private employers' right to issue vaccine mandates, and comes after President Biden signed an executive order requiring vaccinations or once-a-week testing for companies with more than 100 employees.

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What they're saying: St. Elizabeth Healthcare employees failed to show that the hospital operator's vaccine requirement violates individual liberties, U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning wrote in the decision.

  • Because the operator retains the right to set terms for employment, the mandate holds, Bunning said.

  • Citing a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a Massachusetts smallpox vaccination mandate, Bunning noted that "[a]ctual liberty for all of us cannot exist where individual liberties override potential injury done to others."

  • Though he acknowledged workers' concerns about the vaccine, "suspicions cannot override the law."

  • "If an employee believes his or her individual liberties are more important than legally permissible conditions on his or her employment, that employee can and should choose to exercise another individual liberty, no less significant — the right to seek other employment," Bunning wrote.

Context: St. Elizabeth, the largest employer in Northern Kentucky, announced on Aug. 5 that workers without religious or medical exemptions would be required to get the shots by Oct. 1.

  • Employees who are denied exemptions have until Nov. 1 to get fully vaccinated.

  • Attorneys filed a lawsuit early this month on behalf of dozens of employees, asking Bunning to declare the mandate invalid. They'd asked the judge to block the mandate while the case is heard in court.

What they're saying: Mark Guilfoyle, the attorney representing St. Elizabeth, said in an interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer that the decision "could not be more strongly in our favor."

  • "This is great news for St. Elizabeth patients, for St. Elizabeth associates and for our whole community," Guilfoyle said. "This mandate is going to help reduce community spread, and it's going to help keep people out of the hospital, which is already stressed."

  • A spokesperson for the firm representing the employees called the decision a "setback" and "wrong" in a video posted Friday. "We lost here, which we thought was our strongest chance at winning, so that has to be factored in on what we do from here."

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