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Gov. Ron DeSantis won't enforce Supreme Court's ruling impacting COVID-19 vaccines for health care workers

Uncertainty of law causes obstacles for hospitals
A man receives the Moderna vaccine during a COVID-19 vaccination at the Isabel Zendal Hospital in Madrid, Spain, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.
Posted at 3:42 PM, Jan 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 18:21:00-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Despite the U.S. Supreme Court upholding a portion of President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Gov. Ron DeSantis still does not intend to enforce it in Florida.

The country's highest court on Thursday struck down a requirement that would require employees at large businesses to get a vaccine or test regularly and wear a mask on the job.

The court concluded the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees.

At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S.

Florida's governor has been a staunch opponent of vaccine mandates and the president's push to implement a vaccine-or-test rule on businesses.

Desantis COVID-19 bill signing
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs bills to limit COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Florida during a news conference in Brandon on Nov. 18, 2021.

DeSantis called a special legislative session last fall where four state laws were passed limiting COVID shot mandates in Florida.

The governor's office said Friday that DeSantis has no plans to enforce the mandate for health care workers to get vaccinated.

RELATED: South Florida professionals react to Supreme Court decision on vaccine-or-test mandate

"We are excited that the Supreme Court rightly recognized the Biden admin's overreach in trying to mandate vaccines through OSHA," said Taryn Fenske, the communications director for the governor. "We are disappointed about the CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] ruling and what it could mean for the livelihoods of doctors, nurses, and health professionals in our state. As Florida's prohibition on vaccine mandates remains in effect for all industries, we will be evaluating next steps for enforcement in the coming days."

The governor maintains that even workers at facilities covered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services mandate are protected under Florida law.

Governor's statement on Supreme Court ruling, Jan. 14, 2022
The governor's office said Florida's law preventing a vaccine mandate is still in effect despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling impacting health care workers.

Workers who decide not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, either for personal beliefs or medication conditions, must be granted an exemption upon request, state officials said.

"Any worker can access the required exemption forms on the Florida Department of Health website," said the governor's press secretary Christina Pushaw. "Therefore, there is no reason any Floridian should lose his or her job over a COVID vaccine mandate."

Hospital groups like Baptist Health that did not require vaccines, but strongly encouraged them, may be faced with changes.

"Hospitals are going to comply with the federal government in order to continue to ensure access to elderly Floridians. But we also don't want to be in conflict with the state government," said Mary Mayhew, the president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.

Mayhew said the Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday now requires any health care facility that ensures access to Medicare and Medicaid services complies with vaccine mandates.

Mary Mayhew, President & CEO of Florida Hospital Association
Mary Mayhew says Florida hospitals have to make sure they are complying with federal law.

"Hospitals have to make sure that they are focused on compliance and meeting those initial deadlines," Mayhew said.

Hospitals in South Florida and the Treasure Coast have already been encouraging vaccination among staff.

Cleveland Clinic says 73 percent of its caregivers in the Florida region are vaccinated. And now in accordance with the federal mandate, it will now be requiring all Florida employees to get the vaccine or apply for an exemption.

The Health Care District of Palm Beach County says in Belle Glade that 90 percent of Lakeside Medical Center's employees are vaccinated.

As of Nov. 1, 2021, Baptist Health reported 99 percent of its employees were vaccinated without a mandate.

"We may still need clarity from the courts related to federal preemption given this continued perceived conflict between the state law and the federal rule," Mayhew said.

Dr. Leslie Diaz speaks about Supreme Court ruling, Jan. 14, 2022
Dr. Leslie Diaz says she would like to see an end to the politicizing of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Leslie Diaz supports the vaccine mandate for health care workers but said the uncertainty in the law comes with obstacles.

"We're already seeing extreme shortage on health care workers by itself because they have COVID. Some are vaccinated, some are not, so we're already there, and then we may add to that. No question about it," Diaz said.

According to the Florida Hospital Association, the state's registered nurse vacancy rate is higher than the national rate.

Statistics in Florida show that one out of three critical care nurses left their positions last year. That was the highest turnover rate ever seen in the state.

"Hospitals want to clearly work with their staff. No hospital wants to lose staff, but we've got to make sure that we can do it in a way that allows for compliance with the federal requirements," Mayhew said.

Baptist Health released the following statement Friday regarding the vaccination of employees:

"Our vaccine mandate remains paused as we assess how the legislation passed by the Florida legislature in November 2021 will impact the federal COVID-19 vaccination requirement for healthcare workers here in Florida. We continue to strongly encourage vaccination."

The South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association released the following statement on the matter:

"This is a new and evolving situation and it isn’t clear what the impact will be for our healthcare providers who now have to balance CMS rules with state legislation. I written down a few thoughts and feel free to use them.

Reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision that found that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) rule that health care workers at facilities and at suppliers covered by the CMS regulation must be fully vaccinated or receive an approved medical or religious exemption by Feb. 28, 2022.

• In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the CMS rule can go into effect by staying injunctions preventing its enforcement

• Changes the compliance date to February 28

The South Florida Hospital & Healthcare Association believes strongly that all healthcare workers should be fully vaccinated with one or more of the approved COVID-19 vaccines. Further, the Association supports healthcare providers who adopt mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies for health care personnel allowing for the proper exemptions outlined in Federal law

The science is showing that COVID-19 vaccinations provide protection from the virus either in terms of preventing infection or lessening the symptoms in the event of a break through infection. It is important for our patients, employees, and friends and family that everyone needs to be vaccinated.

During the current Omicron surge, all healthcare providers have experienced staffing shortages. Whether caused by retirements, change in jobs, or illness, healthcare providers are looking at every alternative to create safe working environments for their patients and staff. While enforcing the CMS mandatory vaccination rule will cause some healthcare workers to seek alternative employment, recent experience has shown that the loss of employees has been small.

Compliance with CMS’ mandatory vaccination rule will put healthcare providers in Florida in potential conflict/violation with recently passed Florida law. Simply, Florida law allows many more exemptions to a mandatory vaccination policy than would be acceptable by CMS. Sadly, probably the only way to settle this issue will be through the courts to determine if the CMS rule preempts state law. On that issue, both testimony and briefs filed with the Supreme Court in the CMS case seem to opine that the CMS rule will preempt state law.

Florida’s healthcare providers will move cautiously forward given the CMS February date to ensure that all employees are either vaccinated, exempted, or are working in non-patient contact positions."