Patient receives Covid-19 vaccine.

What’s the Law on Vaccine Exemptions? A Religious Liberty Expert Explains

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

By Douglas Laycock, University of Virginia

For Americans wary of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, like the sweeping requirements President Joe Biden announced Sept. 9, 2021, it seems there are plenty of leaders offering ways to get exemptions – especially religious ones.

No major organized religious group has officially discouraged the vaccine, and many, like the Catholic Church, have explicitly encouraged them. Yet pastors from New York to California have offered letters to help their parishioners – or sometimes anyone who asks – avoid the shots.

These developments point to deep confusion over how to win a religious exemption. So what are they, and is the government even required to offer the exemptions in the first place?

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doctor holding clipboard.

Preventing Misuse of COVID-19 Vaccine Medical Exemptions

By Ross D. Silverman and Gabriel T. Bosslet

As COVID-19 vaccination mandates become increasingly common, we can expect exemption requests (and misuse) to become increasingly widespread, too.

Most entities requiring vaccination mandates or proof of vaccination upon entry may offer limited grounds upon which an individual may request an exemption, usually based upon religious beliefs or medical reasons. Recent history with childhood immunization programs shows less rigorously-structured and -enforced vaccination exemption policies are vulnerable to increased usage, relative to narrower or more stringently-monitored programs. That history also shows there is a possibility some health care licensees may be willing to support individuals seeking to circumvent COVID-19-related requirements through offering questionable medical exemptions.

Entities imposing COVID-19 vaccination mandates, and state health care licensure boards, can take several simple but significant steps to counter misuse of medical exemptions and better protect communities from COVID-19. These safeguards also can decrease the temptation for licensed health professionals to recklessly undermine critical, lawful, evidence-driven public health efforts.

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Person filling syringe from vial.

Religious Exemptions to Vaccines and the Anti-Vax Movement

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Two major problems with granting religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are that they are very hard to police, and that they are routinely gamed.

Religious freedom is a core value in the United States. This makes policing religious exemptions to vaccination hard – and rightly so. The government policing people’s religion raises a number of thorny issues.

The problem is that the same people who eagerly promote anti-vaccine misinformation are just as eager to misuse religion to avoid vaccinating, and have no hesitation or compunction about coaching others to do the same. And without policing, it is easy for those misled by anti-vaccine misinformation to use the religious exemption.

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Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

Are Employers That Ditch Mask Mandates Liable for COVID-19 Infections at Work?

By Chloe Reichel

Last week, in response to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance indicating that vaccinated individuals need not wear face coverings indoors, a number of states and businesses swiftly did away with indoor mask mandates.

Widespread criticism followed, focusing on the dangerous policy vacuum that now exists. The CDC has suggested unvaccinated individuals follow an honor system and continue masking — but such an honor system is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

In the absence of indoor mask policies, individuals face increased risk of exposure to the virus. And some groups are particularly at risk of contracting the virus now, including immunocompromised individuals, for whom vaccines may not confer protection, and children under the age of 12, for whom a vaccine has not yet been authorized.

To better understand the new guidance and its implications for workers who are no longer protected by mask mandates, I spoke with Sharona Hoffman, an expert in health and employment law. Hoffman is the Edgar A. Hahn Professor of Law, a professor of bioethics, and Co-Director of Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. In our interview, Hoffman explained whether an employer may be held liable if an employee contracts COVID-19 after an occupational exposure, and highlighted other key issues to anticipate regarding COVID-19 and the workplace.

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

5 Questions About COVID-19 and Religious Exemptions

By Chloe Reichel

On February 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a shadow docket decision that could foretell sweeping limitations for public health measures, both within and outside the COVID-19 pandemic context.

The Court’s ruling in the case, Gateway City Church v. Newsom, blocked a county-level ban on church services, despite the fact that the ban applied across the board to all indoor gatherings. This religious exceptionalism is emerging as a key trend in recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly those related to COVID-19 restrictions.

To better understand what these rulings might mean for public health, free exercise of religion, the future of the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential vaccine mandates, I spoke with Professor Elizabeth Sepper, an expert in religious liberty, health law, and equality at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

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Empty classroom.

Can Colleges and Universities Require Student COVID-19 Vaccination?

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Law Review Blog.

By I. Glenn Cohen and Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

In the last year, colleges and universities across the U.S. struggled with how to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent data, from January 2021, shows a mix of online and in-person modes of instruction.

Pie chart of modes of instruction for higher education institutions during the pandemic.

At the same time, a study of the experience in early fall 2020 found an association between colleges and universities with in-person instruction and increased infection incidence in the counties within which the schools were located. With vaccine authorization in the U.S. and the promise of potential availability for student populations in late spring and summer 2021 (in most states’ allocation plans these students are among the last groups in prioritization), there is increasing interest by higher education institutions in moving more of their fall 2021 educational instruction and non-instructional activities to in-person modes. Vaccinating students is a key step to safely reopening campuses, in whole or in part, in a way that is safe for students, faculty, staff, and local communities. At the same time, university leaders are likely reasonably concerned about the legality of mandating COVID-19 vaccines. Not all students, faculty or staff may appreciate such a requirement, and anti-vaccine groups are more than ready to assist in litigation — as, for example, they did when the University of California required influenza vaccines for on-campus attendance (a preliminary injunction in that case was denied). In this essay, we discuss whether universities can legally require vaccination as a condition of attendance and with what accommodations.

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Patient receives Covid-19 vaccine.

Can Employers Mandate a Vaccine Under Emergency Use Authorization?

By Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

Several months ago, I wrote a post asking whether employers can mandate the uptake of a vaccine under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). My view then was that there was substantial legal uncertainty, but that the balance indicated that at the least, they may be possible, at the discretion of the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Much of that discussion is still relevant, but developments and new points brought to my attention since have changed my view.

At this point, while there is still legal uncertainty, my view is that the balance of factors supports the ability of employers (or states) to require EUA vaccines. Courts vary, but my current assessment is that most courts would be inclined to uphold an employer mandate for an EUA COVID-19 vaccine.

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Person receiving vaccine.

Complex Regulations Push Employers Toward Voluntary Vaccination Programs, Not Mandates

By Lauren Hammer Breslow, JD, MPH

As COVID-19 vaccines become increasingly available, employers have been thrust into the spotlight on the public health question of whether or not to mandate vaccination for employees.

Despite strong evidence that mandatory vaccines best serve public health, a rubric of laws making mandatory programs complicated to deploy is leading many employers to favor vaccine encouragement policies.

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Close up of a Doctor making a vaccination in the shoulder of patient.

Authorize Emergency Vaccines for COVID-19, but Do It Well

By Holly Fernandez Lynch, Alison Bateman-House, and Arthur Caplan

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to grant emergency use authorization (EUA) for one or more COVID-19 vaccines before the end of the year — perhaps even before the end of the day, given today’s advisory committee meeting.

The agency’s decision on these EUAs will balance the need for additional data on safety and efficacy against the potential to protect at-risk groups as quickly as possible. EUAs tip the balance in favor of speed, which can be reasonable for these populations given the circumstances, especially in light of the strong trial data reported for three COVID-19 vaccines since mid-November. But the tradeoff is very real: vaccine EUAs will substantially lower the likelihood of ongoing trials completing and new trials successfully recruiting volunteers. There are a few ways to minimize these consequences.

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