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Supreme Court to hear challenges to Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine rules

▶ Watch Video: U.S. COVID-19 cases nearly double in past week as Omicron spreads

Washington — The Supreme Court said Wednesday it will take up legal challenges to President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements for health care workers and large businesses with at least 100 workers.

In a pair of orders, the court scheduled oral arguments in two sets of cases for January 7, setting a special expedited session for the disputes as the nation confronts a spike in new COVID-19 infections driven by the new, highly transmissible Omicron variant.

One set of challenges was brought by business associations and Republican-led states, which sought emergency action from the Supreme Court over the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) requirements for large businesses, after a divided panel of judges on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the rules could take effect. The states, led by Ohio, and business groups, led by the National Federation of Independent Business, argued OSHA lacks the power to issue the vaccine requirement.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, asked the Supreme Court to intervene in separate challenges to its vaccine mandate for health care workers last week after the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the rules for medical employees to remain blocked in the states covered by their decisions.

The vaccine requirements were among a series of steps announced by Mr. Biden in September designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 amid a spike in cases driven by the Delta variant, which brought a surge of infections toward the end of summer. But both vaccine measures have been subject to a slew of court challenges.

At the crux of one pair of cases the Supreme Court will hear next month are the rules issued by OSHA in early November, which requires businesses with at least 100 employees to either require their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be subject to weekly testing and wear face masks. The vaccine-or-test rules was set to take effect January 4, but OSHA said it will not begin issuing citations linked to the standard before January 10 as long as an employer “is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance” with the requirements. 

The Biden administration said more than 80 million employees could be impacted by the policies. OSHA estimated the vaccine rules would save more than 6,500 workers’ lives and prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations over the next six months

But the new requirements were swiftly challenged in federal courts from coast to coast and ultimately consolidated in the 6th Circuit, which has 10 judges appointed by Republican presidents and five tapped by Democratic presidents. 

A split three-judge panel on the 6th Circuit then allowed the Biden administration’s rules to take effect, finding the requirements are “not a novel expansion of OSHA’s power; it is an existing application of authority to a novel and dangerous worldwide pandemic.” Judge Joan Larsen, appointed by former President Donald Trump, dissented.

The second set of cases center on a rule published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in November that laid out vaccine requirements for staff at a wide range of facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid. Workers covered by the rule were required to receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by December 6 and be fully vaccinated by January 4. The requirement does not have a daily or weekly testing option for unvaccinated workers, but does include medical and religious exemptions.

The Biden administration estimated the vaccine mandate will affect more than 17 million employees in roughly 76,000 facilities. 

Numerous states challenged the vaccine mandate for health care workers in federal court, arguing Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra exceeded his authority to implement the requirement. 

In one case brought by 10 states, a federal district court in Missouri blocked enforcement of the mandate in those places, and the 8th Circuit declined to disturb the lower court’s order. Then, in a separate case brought by 14 states, a federal district court in Louisiana blocked the rule from taking effect nationwide, but the 5th Circuit narrowed the scope of the order to the 14 states that together sued the Biden administration. 

The Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to let the administration’s vaccine mandate take effect in the 24 states where its implementation is currently halted. 

The Biden administration has defended its vaccine requirements as crucial for protecting workers and patients from COVID-19, especially with the emergence of the Omicron variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Omicron has now overtaken Delta as the dominant strain in the U.S., making up more than 73% of cases. 



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