needle in syringe with justice scales

Thousands of healthcare workers suspended for not complying with New York’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate could be headed back to the front lines after a federal judge extended an order Tuesday requiring the state to allow for religious exemptions to the vaccine.

U.S. District Judge David Hurd granted a preliminary injunction temporarily barring the state and its employers from enforcing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate against medical workers claiming a legitimate religious exemption.

The order comes after 17 healthcare workers who objected to the existing vaccines on religious grounds filed suit on Sept. 13, leading to Hurd issuing a temporary restraining order on Sept. 14 that blocked the state from enforcing the vaccine mandate against individuals asking for a religious exemption. 

The mandate, issued Aug. 28, required at least the first dose of vaccine for healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing homes by Sept. 27, and for workers in private practices and other covered healthcare settings — including assisted living communities — by Oct. 9. The mandate prompted approximately 55,000 workers to get the shot, but another 35,600 refused vaccination, according to USA Today. Many of those healthcare workers were suspended pending the outcome of the court battle.

In his order, Hurd noted that medical workers likely would prevail in proving that denying religious exemptions to vaccination violates federal laws. He wrote that the state failed to sufficiently explain why it allowed medical exemptions but tried to ban religious exemptions to vaccination. He also said that workers with medical exemptions to vaccines were given “reasonable accommodations” by wearing personal protective equipment and following other safety protocols.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) vowed to fight the decision in court “to keep New Yorkers safe.”

“My responsibility as governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring healthcare workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that,” Hochul said in a statement.

Christopher Ferra, lead counsel for the Thomas More Society, which filed suit on behalf of the healthcare workers, said in a statement that the ruling recognizes that “yesterday’s frontline heroes” cannot “suddenly be treated as disease-carrying villains and kicked to the curb.”

At least 25 states have imposed vaccine requirements on workers — 21 specify requirements for healthcare workers, according to a LeadingAge vaccine mandate tracker. The majority of states with vaccine mandates require vaccination or regular testing of unvaccinated employees. Six states have taken a “vaccinate or terminate” approach, allowing only for valid religious or medical exemptions. Nine states have passed laws that ban employers from mandating vaccines for workers.