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SALT LAKE CITY — Many Utah officials have been generally supportive of getting vaccinated, but have spoken out against federal mandates of the vaccine. As of this week, the state through Attorney General Sean Reyes has taken part in three lawsuits contesting different federal vaccination mandates.
Utah filed its third lawsuit earlier this week, contesting a vaccine mandate for health care workers.
"The mandate threatens to further burden the health care sector and patient well-being in Utah, where a large percentage of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are already facing worker shortages," Reyes said in a statement.
Utah, with various groups of states, has filed three lawsuits contesting requirements for individuals to be vaccinated and imposing fines for noncompliance. The first is regarding a vaccine requirement for federal contracted workers, the second against a mandate for businesses with over 100 employees requiring vaccination, and the third against a vaccination requirement for health care workers.
On Nov. 6, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals approved the request from Utah and other states to stay the mandate for businesses. Utah and other plaintiffs have sought an order from the court to stop all three of these vaccine requirements, but the courts have not made rulings in the other two lawsuits.
Utah's involvement in contesting mandates
In addition to efforts from the Utah Attorney General's Office, other Utah elected officials have spoken up. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has spoken out against the mandates on the Senate floor for more than two weeks. Lee has specifically spoken in favor of a bill he sponsored to protect health care workers from losing jobs due to the mandate.
The Utah Legislature passed a bill aimed at protecting employees from some aspects of vaccine mandates, including not allowing employment discrimination if an employee claims exemptions — including a "sincerely held personal belief" — requiring employers to pay for testing, and prohibiting employers from keeping vaccination records.
In a statement about the mandate for businesses, Reyes and a group of state leaders called Biden "tone-deaf" and said the vaccine mandates are a "blatant attempt to exceed well-established limitations on federal authority."
"Utahns have made it clear they expect the state to oppose this heavy-handed overreach and each of us will act in our capacities to do so. We will not stand down while Biden disregards the rights of the people and we will continue to stand for civil liberties and freedom in our state," the statement said.
Reyes joined a group of 24 attorneys general from Republican-leaning states who sent a letter to Biden in September asking for the mandates to be stopped and threatening to take legal action if the executive branch followed through with its plans. Reyes said that he is on the leadership team of that coalition.
"Regardless of where you stand on vaccinations overall, the federal government should not be able to mandate such a personal medical decision to employers and individuals. Utah has employed a reasonable approach to the pandemic. We will continue to do so without need of an autocratic mandate from the White House," Reyes said in a September statement.
There have been various groups of states within the group who sent the letter who have filed lawsuits against some or all of the vaccine requirements. Rich Piatt, spokesman with the attorney general's office, said Utah decided which lawsuits to join based on timing and which states the office already has good working relationships with.
Piatt said the differences between the lawsuits are likely subtle because the states filing the lawsuits are on the same page. He said the lawsuits against the same federal measures would likely be consolidated, like the one contesting the vaccine mandate for businesses.
Federal contractor lawsuit
Regarding the first lawsuit Utah was involved in, filed in late October, Reyes issued a statement claiming that Biden "egregiously oversteps his authority" with Executive Order 14042 requiring federal contractors to vaccinate their workforces and that the Constitution limits that power.
He said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — including six additional states, governors of some of the states, some state-level departments and the board of regents of the University System of Georgia — are willing to take the lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court if that is needed.
The complaint argues that the executive order would not only require employees working on federal contracts to be vaccinated, but also employees who interact with those working on a federal contract.
The court document said that the mandate "puts billions of contracting dollars in peril, including huge portions of some state agencies' budgets."
"I am vaccinated. And I believe vaccines can be a powerful tool in the fight against COVID, especially for those without natural immunity," Reyes said, "But vaccines are purposely invasive and the choice to get one is extremely personal. No government body should be forcing that medical decision on its citizens."
About a week after the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction, and they also asked for an expedited briefing schedule. The motion to expedite was granted in part, and the court set a hearing for Dec. 3, just days before Dec. 8 when federal contractors are required to be vaccinated under the executive order.
Most recently, the defendants, including Biden and a list of federal agencies and task forces, asked to clarify the scheduling order. They said that because the contested order was superseded by other federal measures, the plaintiffs claims would be moot or need to be altered and that the states had expressed a desire to make changes.
OSHA businesses lawsuit
Utah and four other states filed this lawsuit in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals contesting the requirement for businesses with more than 100 employees to require their employees to be vaccinated or to get tested each week and wear a mask. The lawsuit was filed on Nov. 5, the day the Occupation and Safety and Health Administration's Emergency Temporary Standard, or vaccine mandate, was created.
The three 5th Circuit judges made a ruling the day after the petition was filed to stop the mandate from going into effect.
"Because the petitions give cause to believe there are grave statutory and constitutional issues with the mandate, the mandate is hereby stayed pending further action by the court," the court document states.
About a week later, the court filed a longer ruling granting the motion for a stay in which it considered the arguments from the states and multiple businesses who were included in the lawsuit. The court said it was granting a stay because the challenges to the mandate are likely to succeed "for a multitude of reasons."
OSHA said that it will comply with the stay.
"While OSHA remains confident in its authority to protect workers in emergencies, OSHA has suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of the ETS (COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard) pending future developments in the litigation," its website states.
Because multiple other lawsuits were filed in various courts regarding this mandate from OSHA, including one filed in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals by 11 states and others, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation decided to consolidate these lawsuits into the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which was randomly selected.
The 6th Circuit, which leans Republican, will now decide whether to keep the stay granted by the 5th Circuit.
Health care workers lawsuit
The lawsuit contesting a mandate for health care workers, which was filed on Nov. 15 in the Western District of Louisiana, was filed by the attorney generals of 12 states, including Utah, against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
The lawsuit said that 17 million health care workers are impacted by the vaccine mandate and that it will harm access and quality of patient care, claiming that the mandate ignores the labor shortage in health care and is "fundamentally at odds with the Social Security Act."
Reyes claims rural Utah's health care system will be hit "particularly hard" by this mandate. He said 45% of both nursing homes and long-term care facilities in Utah have staff shortages and over 25% of health care workers have decided to remain unvaccinated, meaning that the shortages could worsen if the mandate goes into effect.
The complaint said that "the vaccine mandate causes grave danger to vulnerable persons whom Medicare and Medicaid were designed to protect – the poor, sick, and elderly – by forcing the termination of millions of 'health care heroes' who are essential to providing health care services."
Reyes also argues that the vaccine mandate violates the 10th Amendment by requiring state employees to enforce the vaccine policy.
The states asked for a preliminary injunction against the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services vaccine mandate when filing the lawsuit.
A separate lawsuit was filed by 10 different states in the Eastern District of Missouri on Nov. 10. Those states also sought an injunction to require the government to stop the mandate, which has not been ruled on, but the court did grant a motion to expedite the process of making the decision.