Hochul to appeal religious exemptions for COVID vaccine mandate

NEW YORK — Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state attorney general’s office will appeal Tuesday’s decision by a federal judge allowing religious exemptions to New York’s mandate that health workers have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, the governor said Wednesday.

Seventeen New York doctors, nurses and therapists under pseudonyms — represented by conservative law firm Thomas More Society in Chicago — filed suit against Hochul, the state Health Department and its Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and state Attorney General Letitia James for not allowing religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement that went into effect Sept. 27.

Defendants have 30 days to file an appeal in the federal U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We’ll be working on those papers right now, working with the attorney general’s office as well,” Hochul said Wednesday during a COVID-19 briefing in Manhattan.

Judge David Hurd granted a preliminary injunction Tuesday temporarily barring the state’s COVID vaccine mandate for health workers who claim a religious exemption against getting Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose or Pfizer or Moderna’s two-dose shot to protect against the deadly upper respiratory infection.

Hurd ruled the state mandate under Hochul allowed medical exemptions, but not religious exceptions — a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The decision about the mandate disappointed Hochul, she said Wednesday, before doubling down on her defense of the mandate requiring all New York health workers to have at least one COVID vaccine does.

“We believe it worked,” Hochul said. “It has had a dramatic effect on our ability to protect people, particularly health care workers.”

The governor released updated vaccine data Wednesday to defend the mandate’s efficacy.

About 96% of active staff in all New York hospitals have received at least one vaccine dose to protect themselves and others against COVID-19 — up from 87% on Sept. 27 and 77% on Aug. 24 — two days before the state Health Department approved the emergency declaration to enforce the requirement.

About 97% of active nursing home staff in the state have at least one vaccine dose, up from 92% on Sept. 27 and 71% on Aug. 24. In adult care facilities, 96% of active staff have received at least one injection with 94% of personnel in home health agencies vaccinated, Hochul said.

“When someone is sick and they go into an urgent care center or they go into a hospital … they need to know that the person taking care of them will not pass on this deadly virus to them or their family members,” she said. “That has been the whole objective behind this mandate. It’s not something we wanted to do, it’s something that this pandemic has forced us to do, and with the results we’re looking for.”

State Health Department data show a 3% reduction in health care workers statewide since the mandate went into effect at hospitals, nursing homes, adult and home-care facilities. The reduction includes terminated employees and resignations, Hochul said.

About 4.5% have plans to get vaccinated soon.

“People stepped up when they needed to and I’m grateful for that,” the governor said.

Plaintiffs argue they cannot consent to being vaccinated against COVID-19 because the three approved vaccines were tested, produced or connected with aborted fetal cell tissues. None of the available immunizations contain such tissue.

Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna manufactured and tested their COVID vaccines using laboratory-grown cells based on aborted fetal cells collected several decades ago.

Hochul, who has spoken publicly about her personal Christian faith, said Wednesday she understands people who request a religious exemption from getting vaccinated.

“I have no doubt people feel strongly about this, but sometimes, you have to do a calculation of what is important to the extent that someone’s personal beliefs interfere with my ability and the people in the state of New York to be safe,” Hochul said. “Their beliefs are important and safely held, but we also have a public health objective that is overriding. That is the position we are taking in court.”

Hochul expressed confidence Wednesday, and has several times in the last two weeks, that the legal challenge will not hold up in court.

She cited quotes from leaders of various organized religions encouraging their congregates to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the safety and efficacy of the shot.

“The courts ought to pay attention to this, too,” she said, displaying a collection of statements from leaders on the screen. “What the religious leaders are saying is that they want people to get vaccinated.”

At least 85.1% of New York adults ages 18 and older have received at least one COVID vaccine dose as of Wednesday.

The state required all hospital and nursing home workers to have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by Sept. 27. The state Health Department adopted an emergency regulation Aug. 26 requiring most New York health workers to be vaccinated against the virus within the following 30 days.

Hochul expanded the mandate to include home health aides, workers at assisted living, hospice care and other treatment centers.

It remains unclear how the decision will impact future vaccine mandates.

“The whole purpose is not to have mandates — it’s to get us through this pandemic,” the governor said. “We are all sick and tired of this. We want to say it’s over, and this is the way we get to that point.”

Hochul got her seasonal flu shot during Wednesday’s briefing, and encouraged all New Yorkers to get their flu shot as soon as possible.


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