ALBANY — New York health care workers will be able to seek religious exemptions from a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate as a lawsuit challenging the requirement proceeds, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Judge David Hurd in Utica had issued a temporary restraining order a month ago after 17 doctors, nurses and other health professionals claimed in a lawsuit that their rights would be violated with a vaccine mandate that disallowed religious exemptions.
Hurd’s preliminary injunction Tuesday means New York will continue to be barred from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions. And the state cannot revoke exemptions already granted.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will fight the decision in court “to keep New Yorkers safe.”
“My responsibility as governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that,” she said in a prepared statement.
State health officials said that as of Tuesday, facilities reported 7,070 hospital workers, or 1.4% of total employees, had claimed a non-medical exemption, as did 2,636 nursing home workers, or 1.8% of employees.
Hurd wrote that the health care workers suing the state were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim. The question presented in this case, Hurd wrote, is whether the mandate “conflicts with plaintiffs’ and other individuals’ federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers. The answer to this question is clearly yes.”
“This is clearly just a ridiculous government overreach,” said Christopher Ferrara, the Thomas More Society special counsel who represented the plaintiffs. “You can’t do this to people. You can’t call them heroes one day and then throw them out on the sidewalk the next day.”
Hochul’s administration began requiring workers at hospitals and nursing homes to be vaccinated on Sept. 27 and more recently expanded the requirement to include workers at assisted living homes, hospice care, treatment centers and home health aides.
The plaintiffs, all Christians, oppose as a matter of religious conviction any medical cooperation in abortion, including the use of vaccines linked to fetal cell lines in testing, development or production, according to court papers.
Several types of cell lines created decades ago using fetal tissue exist and are widely used in medical manufacturing, but the cells in them today are clones of the early cells, not the original tissue.
The COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is produced by using an adenovirus that is grown using retinal cells that trace to a fetus from 1985, according to the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a January statement that “abortion-derived” cell lines were used to test the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines but not in their development or production.
Hurd also allowed the plaintiffs to keep their identities private by using pseudonyms such as “Dr. A.” and “Nurse J.” The plaintiffs said they wanted to proceed anonymously because they feared the risk of ostracization or retaliation.
Also Tuesday, a federal judge in Manhattan swept aside the latest challenge to a similar New York City mandate requiring employees in the nation’s largest public school system to get vaccines.
Lawyers for 10 employees had sought an injunction blocking the mandate in their cases. They argued their constitutional rights were violated when officials found they did not meet the city’s narrow requirements for a religious exemption.
U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni rejected the request, saying there was no evidence of discrimination.
The mandate “is neutral,” Caproni told a plaintiff lawyer during a hearing on Tuesday. “It says you must be vaccinated. … It applies to everybody.”
Associated Press writer Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON — With many Americans who got Pfizer vaccinations already rolling up their sleeves for a booster shot, millions of others who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine wait anxiously to learn when it’s their turn.
Federal regulators begin tackling that question this week.
On Thursday and Friday, the Food and Drug Administration convenes its independent advisers for the first stage in the process of deciding whether extra doses of the two vaccines should be dispensed and, if so, who should get them and when. The final go-ahead is not expected for at least another week.
After the FDA advisers give their recommendation, the agency itself will make a decision on whether to authorize boosters. Then next week, a panel convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will offer more specifics on who should get them. Its decision is subject to approval by the CDC director.
The process is meant to bolster public confidence in the vaccines. But it has already led to conflicts and disagreements among experts and agencies.
For example, last month the CDC advisory panel backed Pfizer boosters at the six-month point for older Americans, nursing home residents and people with underlying health problems. But CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky overruled her advisers and decided boosters should also be offered to those with high-risk jobs such as teachers and health care workers, adding tens of millions more Americans to the list.
Some health experts fear the back-and-forth deliberations are muddling the public effort to persuade the unvaccinated to get their first shots. They worry that the talk of boosters will lead people to wrongly doubt the effectiveness of the vaccines in the first place.
As the FDA’s panel meets to review the Moderna and J&J vaccines, its decisions this time are likely to be even more complicated, with experts discussing whether a third Moderna shot should contain just half the original dose and what’s the best timing for a second shot of the single-dose J&J vaccine.
The panel will also look into the safety and effectiveness of mixing-and-matching different brands of vaccine, something regulators have not endorsed so far.
An estimated 103 million Americans are fully vaccinated with Pfizer’s formula, 69 million with Moderna’s and 15 million with J&J’s, according to the CDC. Regulators took up the question of Pfizer boosters first because the company submitted its data ahead of the other vaccine makers.
The two initial Moderna shots contain 100 micrograms of vaccine each. But the drugmaker says 50 micrograms ought to be enough for a booster for healthy people.
A company study of 344 people gave them a 50-microgram shot six months after their second dose, and levels of virus-fighting antibodies jumped. Moderna said the booster even triggered a 42-fold rise in antibodies able to target the extra-contagious delta variant.
Side effects were similar to the fevers and aches that Moderna recipients commonly experience after their second regular shot, the company said.
As for people who got the J&J vaccine, the company submitted data to the FDA for different options: a booster shot at two months or at six months. The company did not signal its preference.
J&J released data in September showing that a booster given at two months provided 94% protection against moderate-to-severe COVID-19 infection. The company has not yet disclosed patient data on a six-month booster, but early measures of virus-fighting antibodies suggest it provides even higher protection.
Even without a booster, J&J says, its vaccine remains about 80% effective at preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S.
Scientists emphasize that all three vaccines used in the U.S. still offer strong protection against severe disease and death from COVID-19. The issue is how quickly, and how much, protection against milder infection may wane.
In one recent study, researchers compared about 14,000 people who had gotten their first Moderna dose a year ago with 11,000 vaccinated eight months ago. As the delta variant surged in July and August, the more recently vaccinated group had a 36% lower rate of “breakthrough” infections compared with those vaccinated longer ago.
Still, medical experts continue to debate the science and rationale for giving extra shots to those who already have significant protection.
The White House and its top medical advisers announced sweeping plans in August to offer boosters to nearly all adults, citing signs of waning protection and the then-surging delta variant. But they were rebuffed by many experts who said there is little data showing whether such broad use would stop breakthrough infections or curb the overall trajectory of cases.
While the FDA and CDC ultimately scaled back use of Pfizer boosters, Biden administration officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have suggested that extra shots will eventually be recommended for most Americans.
They point to data from Israel showing lower rates of infections and severe disease among people who received a third Pfizer shot.
The FDA meetings come as U.S. vaccinations have climbed back above 1 million per day on average, an increase of more than 50% over the past two weeks. The rise has been driven mainly by Pfizer boosters and employer vaccine mandates.
WASHINGTON — One reason America’s employers are having trouble filling jobs was starkly illustrated in a report Tuesday: Americans are quitting in droves.
The Labor Department said that quits jumped to 4.3 million in August, the highest on records dating back to December 2000, and up from 4 million in July. That’s equivalent to nearly 3% of the workforce. Hiring also slowed in August, the report showed, and the number of jobs available fell to 10.4 million, from a record high of 11.1 million the previous month.
The data helps fill in a puzzle that is looming over the job market: Hiring slowed sharply in August and September, even as the number of posted jobs was near record levels. In the past year, open jobs increased 62%. Yet overall hiring, as measured by Tuesday’s report, declined slightly during that time.
The jump in quits suggests that fear of the delta variant is partly responsible for the shortfall in workers. In addition to driving quits, fear of the disease probably caused plenty of those out of work to not look for, or take, jobs.
As COVID-19 cases surged in August, quits soared in restaurants and hotels from the previous month and rose in other public-facing jobs, such as retail and education. Nearly 900,000 people left jobs at restaurants, bars, and hotels in August, up 21% from July. Quits by retail workers rose 6%.
Yet in industries such as manufacturing, construction, and transportation and warehousing, quits barely increased. In professional and business services, which includes fields such as law, engineering, and architecture, where most employees can work from home, quitting was largely flat.
Other factors also likely contributed to the jump in quits. With many employers desperate for workers and wages rising at a healthy pace, workers have a much greater ability to demand higher pay, or go elsewhere to find it.
The data from August is probably too early to reflect the impact of vaccine mandates. President Joe Biden’s mandate was not announced until Sept. 9. United Airlines announced its mandate in early August, but it was one of the first companies to do so. Layoffs were unchanged in August, the report found.
The government said Friday that job gains were weak for a second straight month in September, with only 194,000 jobs added, though the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2%. Friday’s hiring figure is a net total, after quits, retirements, and layoffs are taken into account. Tuesday’s report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, includes raw figures, and showed that total hiring in August fell sharply, to 6.3 million from 6.8 million in July.
The data is “highlighting the immense problems businesses are dealing with,” said Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, in an email. “Not enough people. Not enough equipment and/or parts. Meantime, customers are waiting for their orders, or waiting to place their orders. What a strange world this is.”
Quits also rose the most in the South and Midwest, the government said, the two regions with the worst COVID outbreaks in August.
When workers quit, it is typically seen as a good sign for the job market, because people usually leave jobs when they already have other positions or are confident they can find one. The large increase in August probably does reflect some of that confidence among workers.
But the fact that the increase in quits was heavily concentrated in sectors that involve close contact with the public is a sign that fear of COVID also played a large role. Many people may have quit even without other jobs to take.
The sharp increase in job openings also has an international dimension: Job vacancies have reached a record level in the United Kingdom, though that is partly because many European workers left the U.K. after Brexit.
Older adults without heart disease shouldn’t take daily low-dose aspirin to prevent a first heart attack or stroke, an influential health guidelines group said in preliminary updated advice released Tuesday.
Bleeding risks for adults in their 60s and up who haven’t had a heart attack or stroke outweigh potential benefits from aspirin, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said in its draft guidance.
For the first time, the panel said there may be a small benefit for adults in their 40s who have no bleeding risks. For those in their 50s, the panel softened advice and said evidence of benefit is less clear.
The recommendations are meant for people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity or other conditions that increase their chances for a heart attack or stroke. Regardless of age, adults should talk with their doctors about stopping or starting aspirin to make sure it’s the right choice for them, said task force member Dr. John Wong, a primary-care expert at Tufts Medical Center.
“Aspirin use can cause serious harms, and risk increases with age,’’ he said.
If finalized, the advice for older adults would backtrack on recommendations the panel issued in 2016 for helping prevent a first heart attack and stroke, but it would be in line with more recent guidelines from other medical groups.
The task force previously said certain people in their 50s and 60s may want to consider a daily aspirin to prevent a first heart attack and stroke, and that they might get protection against colorectal cancer, too. The updated guidance says more evidence of any benefit for colorectal cancer is needed.
Doctors have long recommended daily low-dose aspirin for many patients who already had a heart attack or stroke. The task force guidance does not change that advice.
The guidance was posted online to allow for public comments until Nov. 8. The group will evaluate that input and then make a final decision.
The independent panel of disease-prevention experts analyzes medical research and literature and issues periodic advice on measures to help keep Americans healthy. Newer studies and a re-analysis of older research prompted the updated advice, Wong said.
Aspirin is best known as a pain reliever but it is also a blood thinner that can reduce chances for blood clots. But aspirin also has risks, even at low doses — mainly bleeding in the digestive tract or ulcers, both of which can be life-threatening.
Dr. Lauren Block, an internist-researcher at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, said the guidance is important because so many adults take aspirin even though they have never had a heart attack or stroke.
Block, who is not on the task force, recently switched one of her patients from aspirin to a cholesterol-lowering statin drug because of the potential harms.
The patient, 70-year-old Richard Schrafel, has high blood pressure and knows about his heart attack risks. Schrafel, president of a paperboard-distribution business, said he never had any ill effects from aspirin, but he is taking the new guidance seriously.
Rita Seefeldt, 63, also has high blood pressure and took a daily aspirin for about a decade until her doctor told her two years ago to stop.
“He said they changed their minds on that,” recalled the retired elementary school teacher from Milwaukee. She said she understands that science evolves.
Wong acknowledged that the backtracking might leave some patients frustrated and wondering why scientists can’t make up their minds.
“It’s a fair question,” he said. “What’s really important to know is that evidence changes over time.”