The federal government will lift its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, the White House announced late Monday.
“HHS and DHS announced today that they will start the process to end their vaccination requirements for Head Start educators, CMS-certified healthcare facilities, and certain noncitizens at the land border,” a White House statement said. “In the coming days, further details related to ending these requirements will be provided.”
Other vaccine requirements were also being lifted with the end of the public health emergency on May 11.
“While I believe that these vaccine mandates had a tremendous beneficial impact, we are now at a point where we think that it makes a lot of sense to pull these requirements down,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Ashish Jha told The Associated Press on Monday.
The controversial rule for healthcare workers was announced Nov. 5, 2021, and went all the way to the US Supreme Court before being fully enacted in early 2022. By some estimates, it covered more than 17 million workers, including all who interacted with patients at more than 15,000 nursing homes.
“While vaccination remains one of the most important tools in advancing the health and safety of employees and promoting the efficiency of workplaces, we are now in a different phase of our response when these measures are no longer necessary,” the White House said.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on Monday issued new guidance for surveyors that acknowledged recent public health policy changes had influenced the approach to vaccination requirements.
“In light of these developments and comments received on the interim final rule, CMS will soon end the requirement that covered providers and suppliers establish policies and procedures for staff vaccination,” the agency said. “CMS will share more details regarding ending this requirement at the anticipated end of the public health emergency. We continue to remind everyone that the strongest protection from COVID-19 is the vaccine. Therefore, CMS urges everyone to stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccine.”
The administration specifically noted vast results in vaccination efforts among workers, as well as the tempering of deaths and infections since the widespread rollout of the vaccines in 2021.
“Since January 2021, COVID-19 deaths have declined by 95%, and hospitalizations are down nearly 91%. Globally, COVID-19 deaths are at their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic,” the White House said in a statement. “Following a whole-of-government effort that led to a record number of nearly 270 million Americans receiving at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are in a different phase of our response to COVID-19 than we were when many of these requirements were put into place.”
The healthcare worker mandate was not without controversy, and a similar attempt via the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that would have mandated shots for large non-healthcare-related employers was rejected by the Supreme Court in a 6-3 vote.
Several coalitions of states launched challenges to the CMS mandate, which was approved by a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court, putting different swaths of the country on different timetables for adherence. Ultimately, the country came under the same order. Many providers acknowledged liberal use and interpretation of personal waivers helped keep many employees on the front lines.
The mandate undoubtedly worked to boost vaccine rates in nursing homes, and widespread fears of a mass employee exodus because of it were not realized. Among staff, coverage stood at 85.8% for the week of April 16. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services never mandated boosters for workers, and that rate has continued to lag. Just 22.9% of healthcare workers were considered up to date by April 16.
In issuing its notice Monday, the administration touted its success in getting the overall federal workforce vaccinated. Nearly all — 98% — were in compliance, officials said, meaning that percentage had received at least one dose of a vaccine or had a pending or approved exception or extension request filed by January 2022.
But times have changed, the White House openly acknowledged late Monday.
“[O]ur broader vaccination campaign has saved millions of lives. We have successfully marshalled a response to make historic investments in broadly accessible vaccines, tests, and treatments to help us combat COVID-19,” its statement said. “While vaccination remains one of the most important tools in advancing the health and safety of employees and promoting the efficiency of workplaces, we are now in a different phase of our response when these measures are no longer necessary.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for details.