PROVIDENCE — A group of health-care workers on Friday asked a federal judge once again to block a state Department of Health mandate that people working in the medical profession be vaccinated against COVID by Oct. 1.
Eight health-care workers, including two staff members at the state-run Eleanor Slater Hospital, are challenging the regulation based on its failure to provide an exemption on religious grounds. They are seeking a preliminary injunction barring the state from enforcing the mandate, arguing that the state must provide a religious exemption if it extends a medical exemption.
Lawyer Joseph S. Larisa Jr. said at least 365 Rhode Island health-care workers are exempted on medical grounds and that, as such, they can continue to work while wearing N95 masks and submitting to twice-weekly testing.
“If you grant one, you need to grant the other,” Larisa argued for the workers during remote proceedings before U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. McElroy.
None of the religious exemptions requested have been granted, Larisa said.
“No one can work with a religious exemption” under the state regulation, he said.
Assistant Attorney General Michael W. Field asked McElroy to rely on a 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last month that upheld a lower court ruling refusing to block a similar Maine vaccination requirement. The U.S. Supreme Court, in turn, let the appeals court ruling stand, leaving the Maine regulation intact.
Field noted that Rhode Island had made vaccinating health-care workers against COVID a priority since vaccines were rolled out last year. In doing so, the state put an emphasis on the importance of ensuring that medical professionals did not place vulnerable patients at risk, he said.
McElroy on Friday rejected Larisa’s representations that masking and testing would suffice for workers seeking religious exemptions, looking back to outbreaks at nursing homes early in the pandemic in which unvaccinated workers must have been bringing the virus in.
“There’s no other conclusion we can draw from that,” McElroy said.
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Still, Larisa insisted that if medical exemptions are granted, so too must exemptions on religious grounds.
“If it works for the goose, it works for the gander,” he said.
The state regulation, enacted Aug. 17, requires that health-care workers be vaccinated by Oct. 1, unless they have an approved medical exemption on a very limited basis.
Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott later announced a 30-day window in which unvaccinated health-care workers could continue to work beyond Oct. 1 if their absence would pose a risk to quality of care.
In response, health-care workers sued Alexander-Scott and Gov. Dan McKee, arguing the regulation would not allow them to forgo being vaccinated based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Their objections are based on the use of “aborted fetal cell lines” in the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines. The workers are proceeding under pseudonyms based on their purported fear of harassment.
(The vaccines themselves do not contain aborted fetal cells, according to Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the state Department of Health.)
Field has argued that there is nothing in the mandate that prevents employers from considering exemptions based on religious beliefs, as required by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Federal guidance directs employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with religious objections to vaccine mandates unless it would cause undue hardship.
McElroy in September refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the state from enforcing the mandate, stating that the workers had not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits.
“As to the constitutional claims, courts have held for over a century that mandatory vaccination laws are a valid exercise of a state’s police powers, and such laws have withstood constitutional challenges,” McElroy continued, referring to a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld states’ authority to enforce compulsory vaccines.
McElroy said she expected to issue a decision in the coming weeks.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Health-care workers try to get RI COVID vaccine mandate blocked