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Vaccine mandate for health care workers on hold despite Florida judge’s ruling

"The changing decisions around vaccine mandates is confusing for those staff. It is adding additional stress to an already stressful situation," said Mary Mayhew.

TAMPA, Fla. — A Florida judge’s refusal to block a federal health care vaccine mandate for thousands of health care workers has no immediate impact following a recent court ruling. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services suspended the requirement when federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana issued preliminary injunctions against the order this week.

“Confusion is a significant concern,” said Mary Mayhew, CEO of the Florida Hospital Association. “We're talking about our frontline health care heroes who have been responding to this pandemic for now more than 20 months. The changing decisions around vaccine mandates are confusing for those staff. It is adding additional stress to an already stressful situation.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a memo on Thursday to CMS compliance inspectors, saying enforcement of the vaccine requirement was suspended while the injunctions are in place. The memo says, under the mandate, workers in Medicare or Medicaid-certified providers were to have at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6. The deadline for full vaccination was Jan. 4. Religious and medical exemptions were allowed.

Dr. Jay Wolfson, professor of public health and associate vice president for health law, policy and safety at USF Health, said the legal battles in court between states and the federal government puts hospitals and health care facilities in the middle of a contentious debate.

“What's at stake here are jobs. What the stake here is patient safety,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, professor of public health and associate vice president for health law, policy and safety at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “What's at stake here is the ability of the federal government to make decisions about patient safety and employee safety based on a regulation that governs reimbursement.”

Dr. Wolfson said health care facilities have tough decisions ahead of them as the case plays out in the courts.

“Hospitals have to be very careful that if they're going to impose the sanction of termination on people who don't vaccinate, that they don't place themselves in a position of not having a sufficient number of clinical staff on-hand to provide the care and services that are required,” he said. 

“And God forbid, this omicron thing explodes and becomes not only very contagious, but very virulent, and people do get very sick. We're not going to know that for a couple of weeks, at least. Everybody's kind of stuck right now.”

Mayhew said the current worker shortage is the worst hospitals have seen in years, and employees are experiencing significant strain. 

“Anything that adds additional stress that may lead to individuals leaving their jobs is obviously a significant concern to our hospitals,” said Mayhew.

However, she expects the courts will be able to resolve the matter in a timely fashion.

“We do expect the courts to move very quickly to resolve these legal challenges,” she said. “So, hopefully, by the first of the year, we will have greater clarity on next steps."