U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s Rulings on COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates, Explained

By Kaitlynn Milvert

In a pair of rulings issued January 13, the Supreme Court put on hold the federal vaccine-or-test requirements for large employers, but allowed federal vaccination requirements for health care workers to take effect while they are litigated in the lower federal courts.

The Court decisions each addressed questions of whether federal agencies — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) — have authority to set these vaccination-related requirements.

In doing so, the Court drew new and unprecedented lines between the kinds of risks that agencies operating outside of the health care context — such as OSHA — have power to address through federal regulations. The Court’s decisions on these issues are likely to loom large in future litigation as federal vaccine requirements continue to be litigated in the lower courts.

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Person filling syringe from vial.

The Beginning of the End of Federalism As We Know It Here on Earth One and Earth 616?

By Jennifer Bard

Friday’s emergency hearing by the Supreme Court regarding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) vaccine-or-test mandate was extraordinary both in that it happened at all and what took place.

The hearing came in a response to a petition by a coalition of states and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) to halt an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) issued by OSHA mandating that all employers with over 100 employees “establish minimum vaccination standards” including “vaccination verification, face covering, and testing requirements.”

That the Court heard the case on an emergency basis signaled their concern that OSHA, in issuing the ETS, was overreaching its authority, as they ruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had done in issuing an eviction moratorium.

But what made the colloquies particularly unsettling is that the ETS was carefully crafted to be, as Professors Larry Gostin and Dorit Rubinstein Reiss explain lucidly, well within contemporary standards for an exercise of federal power affecting a health matter usually within the jurisdiction of a state. It applies only to employers already obligated to follow OSHA workplace standards and fell far short of a vaccine mandate. Moreover, however severe the risk of COVID when this was drafted six months ago, the risk from the Omicron variant is many times greater.

Yet the sympathetic ear given by the majority of the Justices to the arguments made by the lawyers seeking a stay made it possible to wonder if the whole thing was happening in either one of DC or the MCU’s multiverse. This is because the questioning, directly and by implication, calls into doubt what past Courts have identified as the framework of federalism — a nickname for the Constitution’s balancing of a strong federal government against the rights of individual states. We cannot know the extent to which the Justices will adopt any of the arguments offered them for limiting federal agency power, but from this hearing we can anticipate substantial strengthening of an individual state’s ability to resist federal regulation.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Major Questions about Vaccine Mandates, the Supreme Court, and the Major Questions Doctrine

By Wendy Parmet and Dorit Reiss

This Friday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about two federal vaccine mandates: the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) mandate for health care workers, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) vaccine-or-test mandate for employers with over 100 workers. In each case, a key question will be whether the Court should apply the so-called “major questions doctrine.” The Court’s adoption of this approach in the mandate cases would not only remove an important tool for combating the pandemic; it also would severely limit the federal government’s capacity to address many other health threats, while expanding the Court’s ability to substitute its judgment for Congress’.

Although not fully defined or delineated, the major questions doctrine bars administrative agencies from using broad grants of statutory authorities in new and “major” ways. A type of clear statement rule, it requires courts to presume that in the absence of specific Congressional authorization, agencies lack the power to issue new regulations that could be seen as “major.”

In theory, the rule allows courts to avoid federalism and separation of powers concerns. In practice, it empowers courts to resurrect long-discarded approaches to federalism and separation of powers without saying so. It also enables courts to disregard explicit grants of statutory authority (so much for textualism!).

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

The CMS Vaccine Mandate: The Nationwide Injunction and What It Means

By Kaitlynn Milvert

On November 30, 2021, a federal district court issued a nationwide preliminary injunction to block the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) vaccine requirements for health care workers.

This ruling comes mere days before the December 6 deadline for employees of CMS-funded facilities to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and it casts uncertainty over upcoming deadlines for vaccination compliance.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

The Barriers to Aging in Place

By Renu Thomas and John Roth

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the risks associated with institutionalized care for the elderly, and has further shifted sentiments toward a preference for aging in place. But most seniors and their loved ones don’t realize the barriers that make aging in place a difficult proposition until a crisis occurs and they’re faced with finding services.

Take our family, for example. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and it was after his first fall and discharge from the hospital that our family realized my parents’ independence was severely limited. We knew their house was not wheelchair or walker accessible, but we also needed to address other issues as well; neither of them could drive anymore, so how would we get them to appointments, how would their prescriptions and groceries get picked up, and how could we prevent them from being socially isolated? Like many families, we do not live nearby, let alone in the same state, which made coordinating these services even more challenging.

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Work-life balance. flat design style minimal vector illustration.

Shortening Medical Training Would Help Trainees Balance Family and Career

By Leah Pierson

In my junior year of college, my pre-medical advisor instructed me to take time off after graduating and before applying to medical school.

I was caught off guard.

At 21, it had already occurred to me that completing four years of medical school, at least three years of residency, several more years of fellowship, and a PhD, would impact my ability to start a family.

I was wary of letting my training expand even further, but this worry felt so vague and distant that I feared expressing it would signal a lack of commitment to my career.

I now see that this worry was well-founded: the length of medical training unnecessarily compromises trainees’ ability to balance their careers with starting families.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

COVID-19 and Dementia Care: Lessons for the Future

By Marie Clouqueur, Brent P. Forester, and Ipsit V. Vahia

Alongside the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S., the country faces another public health epidemic: dementia, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently one in nine older adults in the U.S. — 6.2 million — have Alzheimer’s disease. The number of adults with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. will increase rapidly as the Baby Boomers age — it is expected to double by 2050.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Acute, surging demand for dementia care services will turn into a persistent problem if we do not increase our capacity for services and better support our frontline workers. We have a chance now to reflect and take action to prepare for what is coming.

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Temporary entrance in front of New York hospital during COVID-19 pandemic.

Institutional Reforms Needed to Strengthen Health Care Post-Pandemic

By Marissa Wagner Mery

COVID-19 has highlighted that pandemic preparedness and management requires a strong, well-functioning health system.

Shoring up the health system and its workforce should be a national priority post-pandemic. First and foremost, we must recognize that the greatest asset of the health system is its people, and the system must reflect this. Second, our hospital-based, competition-driven health care landscape should be reformed to better meet the needs of our communities.

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hands on keyboard of laptop computer.

How Preclinical Medical Students Have Embraced Advocacy Amid Virtual Education

By Tarika Srinivasan

On February 28th, 2020, after an hour of incessantly refreshing my email inbox, I received an acceptance letter to my dream medical school. That same day, a conference in the city I would soon call home became the superspreader nexus from which up to 300,000 COVID-19 infections have been traced.

The ensuing months, which were meant to be an exercise in pomp and circumstance, were marked by a steady stream of anxiety, frustration, and disappointment associated with virtual learning.

As first-year medical students, it is hard not to feel that we comprise the bottom rung of a long, rigid hierarchy. We are fully aware of the limited role we play in this pandemic; we lack the useful clinical skills of a final-year medical student or an employed resident. Our presence in the hospital is more of a liability than an asset.

We witnessed classes of fourth-years graduating early to serve on the front-lines of the spring first wave (though reception to this call of duty ranged from appreciation to apprehension). We imagined that in a few short years, we too might be deemed so “essential” that folks would be clamoring to have us serve on the wards.

But, despite our limited skills, we preclinical students decided we could not simply wait in the wings for our cue. Though we were dedicated to the didactic portion of our curriculum, we were itching to be involved in the action. Thus, we sought to expand the scope of what medical students could do during a pandemic.

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