Court reinstates health worker coronavirus vaccine mandate in half of US

A federal appeals court on Wednesday effectively revived a Biden administration vaccine mandate for health workers at hospitals that receive federal funding in roughly half of the U.S.

The procedural ruling by the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit temporarily scaled back a nationwide injunction put in place by a Louisiana-based federal judge late last month. 

The move notched a modest and tentative win for the Biden administration following a series of legal setbacks to efforts to blunt the effects of a global pandemic that has killed roughly 800,000 people in the U.S. 

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At issue is a Department of Health and Human Services vaccine mandate for most workers at health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid, which has been subject to numerous lawsuits since its November rollout.

The Biden administration maintains that the rule is necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 among millions of health care workers and Medicare and Medicaid patients. 

Critics argue the policy could lead to staffing shortages given the number of vaccine-opposed workers affected.

In late November, a Missouri-based federal judge blocked the mandate in response to a lawsuit brought by 10 states. That freeze remains in place in those states, which are Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The next day, in response to a separate lawsuit by 14 states, a Louisiana-based federal judge entered a temporary injunction across the country. This prompted an appeal by the Biden administration, which also asked the 5th Circuit to halt the injunction while the case plays out. 

The 5th Circuit granted the administration’s request in part by reducing the scope of nationwide injunction and applying it only to the 14 states that sued. Those states are Louisiana, Montana, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. Combined with the Missouri-based judge's injunction, the mandate was then blocked in 24 states.

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In explaining its ruling, the 5th Circuit noted that the Louisiana-based federal judge had given “little justification for issuing an injunction outside the 14 states that brought this suit.”

A Texas judge on Wednesday separately granted a preliminary injunction to the state of Texas against the vaccine mandate.

Updated at 12:43 p.m. on Dec. 16.