Hospital executives and business leaders in New Jersey expressed broad agreement with the Jan. 13 U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for employers with at least 100 workers, but remain uneasy that the mandate stands for health care workers at federally funded hospitals.
President Joe Biden signed the order in September as the delta variant spread quickly across the country.
An estimated 4,646 private worksites employing nearly 1.4 million people in New Jersey could have met the criteria for the order, state labor officials said.
Thursday’s ruling came just three days after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s mandate took effect. Biden’s order had drawn criticism from Republicans who characterized it was federal overreach.
The court ruled 6-3 that OSHA had exceeded its authority in imposing the wide vaccine requirement. But by a 5-4 vote, the justices upheld a similar rule adopted for health care workers by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Gov. Phil Murphy ordered last summer that workers at hospitals, health care settings and other “high-risk” workplaces such as long-term care centers either get the vaccine or submit to regular testing.
“Due to our ongoing requirements under New Jersey’s [executive order], New Jersey has made progress in ensuring vaccination participation across the health care workforce,” the New Jersey Department of Health said in a statement to NJBIZ. “This new rule strengthens requirements.”
State health officials noted that the order would affect dozens of types of health care facilities, including hospital, outpatient rehabilitation centers, long-term care facilities, rural health clinics, community mental health centers, home health agencies, providers of outpatient physical therapy and speech-language pathology, federally qualified health centers, and psychiatric residential treatment facilities.
“COVID-19 vaccination is a critical means to prevent spread of the virus and to avoid infection of vulnerable individuals such as residents of long-term care facilities and patients in hospitals—including those who may be too young to be vaccinated,” NJDOH added.
Cathy Bennett, president of the New Jersey Hospital Association questioned whether such mandates are still important, especially amid a “critical shortage of health care workers” as the delta and omicron variants thin their numbers.
“While NJHA believes fervently in the importance of vaccination, mandates may be a barrier for some individuals working in our healthcare facilities,” she said in a statement.
In New Jersey, the mandate received lukewarm reaction, with business groups opposed to such restrictions.
“[V]accine mandate decisions should be made by businesses on their own volition, taking into consideration their work environment, their workforce and the customers that they serve,” New Jersey Business & Industry Association President and Chief Executive Officer Michele Siekerka said in a statement.
“We don’t believe there should be a one-size-fits-all policy regarding vaccine mandates.”
Tom Bracken, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that any mandate “would cause some serious damage to certain companies because a lot of employees do not not want to be vaccinated or they would leave, and I think that was already happening.”
Murphy has repeatedly said that he would not enact a statewide vaccine mandate, typically referred to as a “vaccine passport” by opponents.
Labor groups and unions also contended that the president’s mandates could erode existing worker’s rights. “Healthcare unions bargained to protect healthcare workers’ rights, to ensure access to testing and vaccinations, all in an effort to minimize the risk of exposure and contain the spread of the virus in healthcare facilities,” Debbie White, president of the state’s 13,000-member nurses’ union HPAE, said in a statement. “Vaccination is only one step in fighting this dangerous virus. Indoor masking, social distancing and handwashing should continue.”
Two other major unions in New Jersey – the Communications Workers of America, which represents state workers, and the New Jersey Education Association – both pressed for greater bargaining power for any vaccine or test mandates.
Hospitals on board
Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Bob Garrett said that he’s happy with the vaccine mandate for health care workers.
“We have a mandatory vaccine requirement in place,” he said in an interview. “That’s the right thing to do, given where we are in the pandemic and given some of the issues we’re facing as health care organization.”
Added St. Joseph’s Health CEO Kevin Slavin: “[t]he evidence Is clear for us, on the patient side, we see 5% or 6% vaccinated. Less than 94% of patients have either vaccination or a booster in New Jersey.”
RWJBarnabas Health, which owns one of the state’s three level one trauma centers based in New Brunswick, said the ruling “has no effect on the vaccine mandate” for its staff.
Atlantic Health, which owns the Morristown Medical Center, said “all our team members are either fully vaccinated, on pace for full vaccinations or have a qualifying exemption,” but did not provide a breakdown of either group.
“We look forward to continuing to provide vaccine to all team members, patients and members of the community who decide to receive it, as we believe vaccination remains our best way to end the pandemic.”
Cooper Health, which owns another of the state’s level one trauma centers based in Camden, told NJBIZ that all its staff “are either vaccinated or have received a religious or medical exemption.”
University Hospital in Newark, a level one trauma center and the state’s only publicly owned hospital, said the ruling likewise has no impact on its staff as well. It is one of six hospitals in the nation receiving help from U.S. military medical personnel as the virus infects hundreds of workers.
“University Hospital was the first hospital in the state to mandate COVID-19 vaccination among all employees, a stance that was taken based on the principle that those of us who are supposed to be caring for the most vulnerable people in our population can not continue to spread this disease to each other or to our community,” it said in a statement.