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Federal vaccine rule bears down on healthcare workers

Legal proceedings over vaccine mandates cause more strain on the nursing profession

A nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Morgan Hill, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu, file

Federal vaccine rule bears down on healthcare workers

Christy Secor, professional ministries director for Nurses Christian Fellowship, said tensions over vaccine mandates have increased the stress on nurses—healthcare workers whose jobs had already gotten harder during the pandemic.

“We have new grads that are going right into a COVID ICU unit. ... For the two years of the pandemic, those nurses have seen and witnessed more death than what most nurses experience over decades of their careers,” said Secor. Some nurses are choosing to leave the profession or retire early, she added.

The Biden administration’s vaccination requirement could make matters worse. The mandate requires workers and volunteers at healthcare facilities receiving Medicaid or Medicare funding to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by Jan. 4, 2022. A group of 10 states says that’s federal overreach and filed a lawsuit against the rule last week.

In a 58-page complaint, the Republican-led states claim the interim rule issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) violates federal rule-making procedures and is an unconstitutional exercise of the federal government’s spending power. They also argue CMS violated the 10th Amendment, which reserves for the states powers not delegated to the federal government.

The Biden administration also faces lawsuits from various states over a separate vaccine mandate that affects businesses with 100 or more employees. Late Friday, a federal appeals court issued a ruling that continues to block that mandate until a full judicial review is completed. The three-judge panel barred the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from enforcing the mandate, which the panel called “fatally flawed,” “staggeringly overbroad,” and an instance of federal government overreach.

The states suing in Wednesday’s lawsuit over the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers are Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—all with significant rural populations that challengers argue will be hit hard by the effects of the mandate. Calling it an “impending disaster,” the states say the CMS rule will exacerbate a shortage of healthcare workers, particularly in rural communities.

“Unfortunately, with this latest mandate from the Biden Administration, last year’s healthcare heroes are turning into this year’s unemployed,” Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said in a statement.

Secor pointed to a recent survey of more than 6,000 nurses by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses that found 92 percent thought the pandemic would lead to shortened careers. Another 66 percent talked about leaving the profession entirely, and 76 percent said unvaccinated people would threaten their physical and mental well-being.

Tensions between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated threaten to fracture the profession, Secor said: “That tension can divert us from care of the patient and the healing that’s part of the profession.” She added that Nurses Christian Fellowship is focusing on how nurses can provide spiritual care for one another. “How do we as nurses make it through what we are experiencing, how do we start calling out and giving voice to the emotions we’re feeling, and how do we continue to stay connected to God through all of this?”

The CMS vaccine mandate contains a religious exemption, not all mandates do. State healthcare worker vaccine requirements in Democrat-led Maine, New York, and Rhode Island have all faced court challenges that have so far proved unsuccessful.

The Supreme Court is currently considering a petition filed by three New York nurses and a group called We the Patriots USA to block the New York mandate on First Amendment grounds. New York Attorney General Letitia James urged the court to reject the petition, saying it would result in a “vicious cycle of staff shortages and deterioration of patient care,” reported CNN. On Friday, another group of New York medical workers also asked the high court for emergency relief.

The Supreme Court last month failed to muster the five votes required to put an emergency hold on a nearly identical vaccine rule out of Maine. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, said healthcare workers “who have served on the front line of a pandemic for the last 18 months, are now being fired and their practices shuttered,” all for “adhering to their constitutionally protected religious beliefs.” Challengers of Maine’s mandate filed a petition on Thursday asking the court to take up their case.

A focus on statistics and lawsuits can obscure the everyday reality that frontline nurses cope with, Secor said.

Whitney Kvistad, a critical care nurse whom Secor mentored, described working during the pandemic. “In 16 hours [I] helped someone die, rubbed her daughter's back while she sobbed & ached,” Kvistad tweeted. “Helped my other patient to reorient to a world 2 months after entering the hospital with covid, held her hand & prayed to Jesus aloud after she asked me to pray. ... All in a day’s work as they say. I would say that’s the power of a nurse.”

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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