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Judge again rejects Florida's request for injunction in health workers vaccine case

A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
A health care worker fills a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Disagreeing with two judges in other parts of the country, a Pensacola-based federal judge is standing behind her decision to reject Florida’s request for an injunction against a Biden administration rule that would require health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers issued a 19-page order Wednesday that said she has considered a new Florida law aimed at banning vaccination mandates, but the law did not change her mind about denying the state’s request for a preliminary injunction.

Rodgers also split with federal judges in Missouri and Louisiana who have issued injunctions against the Biden administration rule --- including a decision Tuesday by Louisiana U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty to issue a nationwide preliminary injunction against the vaccination mandate.

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Rodgers wrote in a footnote in her Wednesday order that she “respectfully disagrees and is not persuaded by the reasoning of those courts.”

She wrote that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which issued the rule last month, “is not usurping the state’s police power to broadly regulate for the common good but instead has implemented a health precaution for the effective and efficient administration of the federal health care programs it is entrusted with administering.”

Rodgers denied Florida’s request for an injunction Nov. 20 but later said she would reconsider the decision because of the new state law, which was passed in a special legislative session last month. She said she had not been notified of the passage of the law, which was signed Nov. 18 by Gov. Ron DeSantis, before she issued the Nov. 20 ruling.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody challenged the Nov. 20 ruling at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A copy of Rodgers’ additional order Wednesday was filed at the Atlanta-based appeals court. She said she thought it was appropriate to address the state law as the appeal is considered “since the issue was not squarely addressed in the original order.”

The federal rule would apply to hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care providers that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Under the rule, health-care workers would be required to receive at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6 and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, with limited exemptions for medical and religious reasons.

While Doughty issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the rule, Moody’s office Wednesday requested that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals move forward with the Florida case because the Louisiana decision likely will be appealed. Florida is initially seeking what is known as an “injunction pending appeal,” which would temporarily put the vaccination rule on hold.

“Were the nationwide injunction (in the Louisiana case) stayed or narrowed, Florida and its citizens would be without protection beginning on December 6,” Moody’s office said in the Wednesday filing. “Florida therefore respectfully requests that the (11th Circuit) Court continue to consider Florida’s motion as time sensitive and that it issue a ruling before the December 6 deadline.”

The vaccination requirement would affect hundreds of private hospitals, nursing homes and other providers in Florida, along with state agencies that provide health care services. State and industry officials have repeatedly pointed to concerns that the requirement could worsen staffing shortages, including at facilities such as state veterans’ nursing homes.

Moody’s office has alleged that the federal government overstepped its legal authority in issuing the vaccination requirement and did not follow proper procedures, such as consulting with states and providing notice. Also, the lawsuit contends that the requirement is “arbitrary and capricious.” Much of the lawsuit is based on alleged violations of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

In a document filed Monday at the appeals court, Moody’s office said the “mandate is unlawful several times over.”

“The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has taken the unprecedented step of mandating the vaccination of millions of frontline health care workers,” the document said. “The measure risks exacerbating an already acute health care-worker shortage and harming the very vulnerable populations that Medicare and Medicaid help, all while purporting to preempt Florida’s sovereign prerogative to ban compelled COVID-19 vaccination.”

But Rodgers, who was nominated to the bench by former President George W. Bush, wrote in her Wednesday order that the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has broad rulemaking authority over the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The department includes the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

She also wrote that a “balancing of the equities” favored denial of the request for an injunction.

“In this instance, the safety of Medicare and Medicaid patients and staff administering the program throughout this pandemic, which has left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and the need to slow the spread of the virus, are greatly enhanced by virtue of the COVID-19 vaccine, according (to) the medical and public health science,” Rodgers wrote. “This public safety interest is especially compelling within the context of health care facilities, which are charged with protecting vulnerable patients participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and thus weighs heavily on the side of denying injunctive relief.”

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