Federal vaccine mandate for health care workers in 10 states blocked by judge

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Enforcement of the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for millions of health care workers was blocked in 10 states on Monday, after a ruling by a federal judge in Missouri.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp affects the states involved in the lawsuit, which include Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, and New Hampshire.

The others are North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas, Wyoming and Alaska.

At issue is President Joe Biden’s campaign to ensure that workers throughout the country are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Many private sector employees will be required to get vaccinated or undergo weekly tests, while some 17 million health care providers at facilities participating in the federal Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs must be vaccinated — with no option to choose weekly testing instead.

Under the requirement, health care workers were to be vaccinated by Jan. 4, 2022.

In his 32-page opinion granting a preliminary injunction while the lawsuit proceeds, Schelp wrote that the state attorneys general challenging the mandate appear likely to succeed in their argument that federal health officials lack the authority to implement the requirement.

He also agreed with claims from the plaintiffs that health care facilities will suffer staffing shortages due to the requirement.

“The public has an interest in stopping the spread of COVID. No one disputes that,” Schelp, who was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2019, wrote in the 32-page opinion. “But the court concludes that the public would suffer little, if any, harm from maintaining the ‘status quo’ through the litigation of this case.”

In a statement after the ruling, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt described the injunction as “a huge victory for healthcare workers in Missouri and across the country, including rural hospitals who were facing near-certain collapse due to this mandate.”

“While today’s ruling is a victory, there’s more work to be done, and I will keep fighting to push back on this unprecedented federal overreach,” Schmitt added.

Several other lawsuits from states are pending in federal courts, challenging both the mandate on health care workers and the broader mandate on most private sector employees.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that the administration is “obviously going to abide by the law and fight any efforts in courts or otherwise” to prevent health care facilities from protecting their work forces.

New covid omicron variant ‘not a cause for panic,’ Biden says

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden sought to reassure Americans on Monday about the latest COVID-19 variant, describing it as “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

Biden did not announce any new travel restrictions or other federal actions during his brief remarks from the White House.

Instead, he urged Americans to get a booster shot to increase their immunity against COVID-19 — and to be patient while scientists gather more data on what exactly the new omicron variant will mean.

“We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day,” Biden said. “We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

The White House already had restricted travel from eight nations, including South Africa, which first identified the new variant.

Other countries also have restricted travel as cases involving the new variant have been detected in a growing number of countries, including Canada and parts of Europe.

So far, U.S. public health officials say they believe the current COVID-19 vaccines will provide protection against the new variant. But it likely will take several weeks to gather data on how the mutations in the new variant make it easier to transmit or cause more serious disease.

Biden said his administration will share the information it gathers “candidly and promptly.” He also said that top health officials are working with the three authorized vaccine manufacturers to ensure they are preparing in case they need to tweak their products to adapt to the variant.

The president also said he will be announcing on Thursday a detailed strategy for fighting the  COVID-19 pandemic throughout the winter, including more widespread vaccinations, boosters and testing.

“We have moved forward in the face of the delta variant,” Biden said, referencing the variant that caused a surge in infections over the summer. “And we move forward now in the face of the omicron variant as well.”

New variant, new concerns. Focus in North Carolina remains on vaccinations.

President Joe Biden is expected to provide an update about the new coronavirus variant today, including new travel restrictions.

On Sunday, Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told Biden that it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on omicron’s transmissibility, its severity, and other characteristics of the variant first identified in South Africa.

In the interim, the White House COVID Response Team offered the following recommendations: Those who have procrastinated and not had a shot yet should get vaccinated against COVID immediately. All vaccinated adults who are eligible should get a booster shot as soon as possible.

Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, data from the state Department of Health and Human Services showed 57% of North Carolinians fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Health officials are working to get more young children protected. In the weeks after the CDC granted approval to the pediatric vaccine, 12% of North Carolina children age 5-11 have received at least one-dose of the Pfizer shot. Forty-five percent of children age 12-17 have received at least one-dose thus far.

Efforts to improve vaccination rates in rural parts of the state also remains a concern.  Two dozen counties have vaccination rates below 50%. Those include:Click here to find a vaccine appointment near you.

President Biden will deliver remarks on the omicron variant today at 11:45 a.m.

New ‘must read’ report documents the impact of COVID-19 on low income households in NC

Dr. Jim Johnson Jr.

It’s well known that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on communities across the globe, but as a new report from the North Carolina Community Action Association documents, that havoc has been especially destructive in low income communities in North Carolina.

The report, which includes the voices of many directly impacted by the disaster, is entitled “Assessing the Impact of COVID-19 on Low-Income Households and Communities in North Carolina,” and it was actually prepared by a team of experts led by the acclaimed demographer, Dr. Jim Johnson (pictured at left) — the Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the UNC Kenan-Flagler School at UNC Chapel Hill.

This is from the executive summary:

The North Carolina Community Action Association (NCCAA) commissioned a study to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its efforts to combat poverty and facilitate self-sufficiency in low-income communities throughout the state. We conducted focus groups with individuals served by Community Action Agencies (CAAs) and conducted a corresponding set of key informant interviews with identified leaders in five communities across the state. The research focused on five themes:

  • Behavioral responses to recommended protective measures
  • Hardships and economic fallout
  • Coping strategies
  • Adequacy of relief measures
  • Perception and beliefs about COVID-19 vaccines

Among the key takeaways from the research:

  1. COVID-19 exacted a disproportionately heavy toll on low-income families, especially in terms of both exposure to and deaths from the coronavirus.
  2. Above and beyond disparate exposures and deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic created major employment challenges and forced low-income households to make difficult decisions and choices regarding work versus personal safety and the health and well-being of their families.
  3. The shift to remote learning during the pandemic shed new light on deficiencies in infrastructure related to availability, access, quality, and cost of internet services for low-income families.
  4. The pandemic heightened personal and familial stress and anxiety posing, in the process, major socio-emotional and mental health challenges for low-income individuals and families throughout the state.
  5. Government safety-net programs were an important  lifeline but fell short of addressing the range of assistance low-income households needed during the pandemic.
  6. Beyond government support and private sector assistance, residents have pursued a wide array of coping strategies, tactics, and practices to survive the pandemic.
  7. Augmenting personal resiliency, nonprofit organizations were instrumental in creating a therapeutic community for the most vulnerable
    families, providing much needed supports—financial and socio-emotional as well as basic-necessities such as food and personal protective equipment—during the pandemic.
  8. Compliance with safety precautionary measures—with only a few exceptions—is high but vaccine hesitancy is widespread among North Carolina’s low-income families and households.

The report goes on to present a host of findings regarding the lived experiences of low-income people from across the state and to offer several specific recommendations — many of which advise leveraging the experience and reputation that community action agencies possess in the most impacted communities to “develop trusted messages in the current and any future crisis.”

Click here to explore and share the full report. Let’s hope it helps to raise the profile of community action agencies

Giving thanks to America’s medical community for life-saving vaccines

School children wait in line for immunization shots in the 1940s at a child health station in New York City. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

If we were not still in the grip of a deadly pandemic, with the seven-day average U.S. death toll from the coronavirus hovering just over 1,100 a day, I probably would not have thought of giving thanks this year for the medical researchers who have given this country protection against many life-threatening illnesses.

Back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when I became aware of vaccinations, my thoughts were anything but thankful. When a doctor or nurse brought out a needle, they had to pry me out from behind the furniture to administer a shot. I refused Novocain in the dentist’s office.

Then came the 1952 polio epidemic, which was the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. We saw pictures of kids in iron lungshuge mechanical devices to help kids breathe.

We did not know what caused polio, but we were told not to gather together or drink from public fountains or swim in public pools. My uncle, Uli, got polio and his legs withered, bringing the disease close to home. When the Salk polio vaccine became available in about 1955, everyone in our community and across the country could not get shots fast enough.

That softened my fear of needles. It further softened over the years when the effectiveness of various vaccines was proven time and again — measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and so on. When I developed hay fever, it was a mixed blessing. I did not have to work in the hay, which was the worst work on the farm, but I did have to get regular injections, which my mom did very slowly so as not to hurt. Yikes!

Then, in 1968, I volunteered to fight in Vietnam and had to get a long list of vaccinations. Everyone had to take the vaccinations for the protection of the entire unit the old thing about the chain breaking at the weakest link, obviously the unvaccinated one. They included plague, yellow fever, typhus, typhoid fever, cholera, and the very worst, gamma globulin in the posterior for hepatitis. It left a big bump in the rear that slowly dissipated over a week or so.

As one continues through life, it is easy to take for granted the fact that you don’t have to worry about the dread diseases that our ancestors had to face on practically a daily basis. Plague and smallpox wiped out entire populations before the scientific community developed means of prevention that could be administered in a painless injection.

We don’t know how very fortunate we are and how thankful we should be.

When I was a kid and we learned that someone in the community had been diagnosed with cancer of practically any variety, we all thought it was a death sentence. When Dr. Gupta called on Jan. 13, 2017, to say that I had pancreatic cancer, that was my very question: “Is this a death sentence?” His response was, “Not necessarily.” I was told later that chemotherapy would increase my chances of survival to 30%.

In order to get chemo, you had to get a whole range of shots, which I gladly accepted and would have taken many more. It was not a question as to whether the Food and Drug Administration or anyone else had given its blessing to any of them. My trusted physicians had said they were necessary, and that was enough. They put a port in your chest so they could mainline it, and you were happy to put up with all of it for a chance of survival.

You see many other dear souls in the injection lounge taking in stuff that some would call poison, just for the chance of more life with their loved ones not a lot of bellyachers and dissidents in that venue. I’m now four years cancer free.

So, let me raise a toast this Thanksgiving weekend to the doctors, nurses, medical researchers and other medical personnel who have strived so hard over the many years to find ways of saving the public from illness and death at the hands of deadly diseases such as COVID-19 and all of the other scourges I’ve previously mentioned.

We owe you, we salute you, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts, which are still beating because of you.

Jim Jones served as Idaho attorney general for eight years (1983-1991) and as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years (2005-2017). His columns are featured regularly in the Idaho Capital Sun, which first published this essay.