Judge considering health care workers’ lawsuit over vaccine mandate

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The clock is ticking for Rhode Island health care workers who still aren’t vaccinated.

All staff at state-licensed health care facilities are required to be fully vaccinated by Friday or risk losing their jobs, but those who oppose the mandate hope Judge Mary McElroy will step in first.

McElroy heard arguments Wednesday on a federal motion seeking a temporary injunction against the requirement. She took the information presented under advisement and has yet to issue a decision.

The group of health care workers who filed the lawsuit believe the mandate is unconstitutional since it doesn’t allow for religious exemptions.

Rhode Island, according to the lawsuit, “stands nearly alone in even attempting to outlaw this right.”

“Rhode Island is not an island unto itself,” the lawsuit states. “If across America religious exemptions can be accommodated consistent with patient safety, then as a matter of law and logic, the same applies here.”

Maine is the only other state that doesn’t allow for religious exemptions to their vaccine mandate. Earlier this week, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction in New York.

During the hearing, McElroy questioned the difference between the COVID-19 vaccine and others like the flu, measles and mumps, which all health care workers must get.

She also heard from a number of health care professionals who support the mandate, including Dr. Raymond Powerie.

“We need to keep a well workforce and we need to not transmit disease amongst ourselves and to others,” he said. “There is no more essential building block than the vaccine and it is not perfect, it doesn’t provide complete protection, but it’s our best bet.”

Care New England CEO Dr. James Fanale issued a warning Wednesday that those who refuse to get vaccinated “will not be allowed to work.”

“Our healthcare system has contingency plans in place should any healthcare worker choose not to work after the deadline,” Fanale said, adding that 95% of Care New England’s workforce is immunized.

Kathy Heren, a health care worker who supports the mandate, is urging her colleagues across the state to put their patients first.

“I wish that we could get the politics out of this, get the misinformation out of this and have people understand that no one is trying to take away their rights,” Herren testified. “We’re just trying to protect people who can’t protect themselves.”

“If your religious beliefs are that strong, then you shouldn’t be working in this industry because the patient’s wellbeing has to be the first and foremost thing they’re concerned with,” she continued.

But Desiree Desvergnes, a nurse at Woman & Infant’s Hospital, disagrees.

“It’s not right, it’s a violation of our rights,” she said. “I am not anti-vaccine and I have other vaccines. I just want to have the choice to choose what goes into my body.”

Gov. Dan McKee said Wednesday he will continue to push for all health care workers to get vaccinated, adding that he will consider moving staff at state-run hospitals to other positions if they prefer not to get the shot.

“We don’t want anyone to lose their job, but we really need to hold firm to the value of getting vaccinated,” he said.

Desvergnes, who said she regularly wears a face mask while at work, argues that people should be able to choose what they put into their bodies, including health care workers.

“There should be no discrimination in the workplace and that’s what’s going on,” she said.

Lynn Blais, president of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, tells 12 News she supports the statewide vaccine mandate, but also understands that everyone has their own reasons for not getting immunized.

“I have to respect that and I feel bad that they will be walking away from their career,” Blais said.

Data from the R.I. Department of Health shows 64% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated to date.

On Wednesday, the Health Department reported 254 new cases and a 1.3% daily positivity rate, with more than 18,800 tests administered the previous day.

Two more Rhode Islanders have died after contracting COVID-19, health officials disclosed.

Hospitalizations declined slightly to 129, with 13 patients in the intensive care unit and 9 on ventilators.

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