Gov. Chris Sununu said Monday a preliminary injunction against a vaccine mandate was a “big win” for New Hampshire’s health care system, but some public health advocates beg to differ.
A federal judge in St. Louis blocked enforcement of a Biden administration vaccination requirement affecting providers participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs, such as hospitals and nursing homes. New Hampshire was one of 10 states that brought the legal challenge.
Monday’s court order said the mandate lacked clear authority from Congress.
A nursing staffing shortage would be exacerbated by making the vaccination a condition of employment, the Republican governor said in a news release.
“Nursing homes were at risk of closure if the Biden mandate remained in place,” Sununu said. “This helps maintain the staff New Hampshire needs to care for our loved ones.”
Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland could lose more than a dozen of its roughly 250 employees due to the federal vaccine mandate for health care workers. As a result, the county-owned nursing home plans to close its third floor and move those residents to available beds on the second and fourth floors in early December, Administrator Kathryn Kindopp told The Sentinel last week.
N.H. Attorney General John Formella said the judge’s order means the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services may not enforce its vaccine mandate against any facility in New Hampshire until further notice and that a permanent order was being sought. All staff, aside from those with approved medical or religious exemptions, would have to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4 under the mandate.
Medical organizations can still place their own requirements on those they employ, and this includes vaccinations, including for COVID-19.
Cassidy Smith, a spokeswoman for Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said the health system required all of its employees, including those at Cheshire Medical Center, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or obtain an approved medical or religious exemption, by the end of September. She said more than 99 percent of employees have complied with this policy, including those who received an exemption.
“The injunction will have no bearing on Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health’s vaccine mandate as a condition of employment,” she said. “Our self-imposed mandate preceded [the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ mandate] and the agency’s ability to enforce its mandate, or not, is irrelevant.”
She said the health system advocates for vaccination, mask wearing, physical distancing and diligent hand hygiene as the most effective ways to end the pandemic.
Pamela P. DiNapoli, executive director of the N.H. Nurses Association, said her organization also stresses the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations.
“We believe that the science is valid and that nurses out of an ethical obligation to patients should be vaccinated,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.
“If everybody got vaccinated, the virus would stop mutating. The vaccine decreases the mortality rate and fewer people would have to be hospitalized.”
DiNapoli said more than 80 percent of nurses in the state have been vaccinated for the virus. COVID-19 has infected 6,554 health care workers, killing 11 of them in New Hampshire, according to state statistics updated Monday, the latest that are available.
Cases have been trending upward across New Hampshire. The most current state report indicated 7,078 current infections and 377 current hospitalizations. A total of 1,694 COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the state.
Mindi Messmer, of the N.H. Science and Public Health Task Force, a Portsmouth-based nonprofit, said the state is not acting in the best interests of public health when it sues to block federal vaccine requirements.
She also questions why health care workers wouldn’t want to get vaccinated.
“I would hope health care workers would not want to expose patients in their care to COVID-19,” she said. “I will not go to any physician or dentist who does not ensure to me that all the people taking care of me are vaccinated. I do not want myself or my family to be exposed.”
Meanwhile, an appeals court has blocked enforcement until further notice of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement that companies with 100 employees or more require their workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or be tested for the virus weekly.
Last week, Sununu sent a letter to Douglas Parker, assistant U.S. secretary of labor, saying businesses are being placed in a difficult situation in responding to court rulings on vaccination requirements.
“Absent sufficient time, there is a real potential that employers would not be able to come into compliance should the court rescind the stay, including the draconian requirement that businesses lay off employees during the holidays if they are unwilling or unable to get fully vaccinated,” he said.
Despite opposition to federal vaccination mandates, the governor has recommended that people be vaccinated for the virus, particularly as cases mount, contagious variants emerge and more people go indoors during colder weather.