New York health officials revealed plans to repeal the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers just minutes before an appeals court was to hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging the mandate, an attorney said.
The striking development was disclosed inside the courtroom in Rochester, as an attorney for the Attorney General's Office informed the judges that state health officials would soon issue public statements regarding New York's plan for repealing the vaccine mandate.
The Department of Health issued a statement to USA TODAY Network regarding the situation. The agency noted it plans to repeal the vaccine mandate "due to the changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic and evolving vaccine recommendations."
On Wednesday, Jonathan Hitsous, the Attorney General's Office attorney representing the state, told judges that the vaccine mandate repeal would unfold in the near future, requiring final approval of the decision by the state Public Health and Health Planning Council.
State health officials on Wednesday also asserted the vaccine mandate helped reduce COVID-19 risks earlier in the pandemic.
"Throughout the public health emergency, this vaccine requirement served as a critical public health tool, helping to protect both health care workers and the patients under their care," officials stated.
The agency's statement also noted the Health Department will not pursue any new enforcement of the mandate, but added health "facilities should continue to implement their own internal policies regarding COVID-19 vaccinations" as the repeal process progresses.
The state requirement that New York health care workers be fully vaccinated − meaning two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines, or one Johnson & Johnson dose − took effect in September 2021.
The mandate prompted about 34,000 medical workers, or 3% of the workforce at the time, to quit or be fired instead of getting the shots.
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Meanwhile, it remains unclear what the appeals court ruling will be regarding the vaccine mandate lawsuit.
Hitsous, the attorney for the state, argued the complaints in the lawsuit have become moot due to the pending mandate repeal. He requested that the appeals court vacate a lower court ruling in the case.
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But Sujata Sidhu Gibson, an attorney for the health workers in the case, disputed that position, arguing the appeals court would still have to make a decision regarding a lower court's ruling that struck down the mandate.
The outcome of the appeals case has potential implications for future efforts by state officials to add COVID-19 vaccines to existing lists of vaccines for other diseases — such as measles and polio — recommended or required in other settings, including schools.
Previously, the state appeals court issued a stay that kept the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health workers in place during the ongoing court battle.
The stay temporarily halted enforcement of the ruling in January from state Supreme Court Justice Gerald Neri in Syracuse that declared the health worker vaccine mandate was null and void. Neri asserted in part that the mandate exceeded state health officials’ authority and usurped the Legislature’s power to control which immunizations to require.
Gov. Kathy Hochul's administration appealed Neri's ruling on the lawsuit, which was filed by several health workers who cited, in part, religious objections to receiving the shot. The mandate banned religious exemptions but allowed rare exceptions for medical reasons.
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: NY to repeal COVID vaccine mandate for health workers, attorney says