Martha Stoddard and Kelsey Stewart World-Herald Bureau
Nov 29, 2021 | Updated Nov 30, 2021
LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts on Monday called the preliminary injunction blocking federal enforcement of a coronavirus vaccine mandate on health care workers “positive” news.
A federal judge blocked the mandate on health care workers in Nebraska and nine other states that had brought the first legal challenge against the mandate.
The court order said that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had no clear authority from Congress to enact the vaccine mandate for providers participating in the two government health care programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.
The preliminary injunction by St. Louis-based U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp applies only to the coalition of 10 states. The others are Iowa, Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Similar lawsuits are pending in other states.
“This is very timely,” Ricketts said on his call-in radio show, noting that the federal mandate was slated to take effect this week.
While Ricketts called the COVID-19 vaccine a miracle of medicine, he also said Americans should not be forced to decide between their jobs and getting a shot. He said the injunction will help health care providers, especially those in rural areas, who are struggling to find staff.
A caller who identified himself as Cory from Holt County welcomed the news. He said his wife works at a local hospital and was faced with a Dec. 5 vaccine deadline.
Ricketts noted that the injunction stops the federal government from imposing mandates on health care providers but that providers may have their own vaccine requirements.
Eight large Omaha- and Lincoln-based health systems announced in early August that they planned to require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Officials said at the time that the move was to ensure the safety of patients and employees and the communities in which they operate.
By early November, 90% of those health systems’ employees had received vaccines. All of the systems granted exemptions to a small percentage of their employees on medical or religious grounds. Those employees typically have agreed to wear masks and be tested regularly.
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said in a statement that the ruling is significant for Nebraska health care workers, especially those who work in rural hospitals.
“Today’s ruling immediately prevents enforcement of the mandate. While we do anticipate the federal government will seek immediate review by the Eighth Circuit, we are confident that the analysis by the trial court will be confirmed,” he said.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds released a statement saying she applauds the court’s decision.
“Medical providers that have been on the frontlines of this pandemic saving lives deserve the freedom and ability to make their own informed health care decisions,” she said. “I believe the vaccine is the best defense against COVID-19, but I also firmly believe in Iowans’ right to make health care decisions based on what’s best for themselves and their families, and I remain committed to protecting those freedoms. President Biden should do the same.”
The federal rule requires COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 17 million workers nationwide in about 76,000 health care facilities and home health care providers that get funding from government health programs. Workers are to receive their first dose by Dec. 6 and their second shot by Jan. 4.
The court order against the health care vaccine mandate comes after President Joe Biden’s administration suffered a similar setback for a broader policy. A federal court previously placed a hold on a separate rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure that their workers get vaccinated or else get tested weekly for the coronavirus.
The administration contends that federal rules supersede state policies prohibiting vaccine mandates and are essential to slowing the pandemic.
But the judge in the health care provider case wrote that federal officials likely overstepped their legal powers.
“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,” Schelp wrote. “Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism.”
Even under an exceedingly broad interpretation of federal powers, “Congress did not clearly authorize CMS to enact the this politically and economically vast, federalism-altering, and boundary-pushing mandate,” he wrote.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.