The V.I. government has asked the V.I. Superior Court to dismiss an emergency motion that seeks to block a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees of the territory’s hospitals.
The mandate adopted by the V.I. Government Hospital and Health Facilities Corporation on Aug. 4 requires hospital employees to either get vaccinated against the virus or request an exemption for medical or religious reasons by Oct. 1 or face termination.
“With more than 331 million doses administered in the U.S., the vaccines have proven safe and extremely effective against symptomatic infections, hospitalizations and death. The vaccines are so effective that today more than 99 percent of people who die from COVID-19 are unvaccinated. The science is clear — vaccines save lives,” corporation Chairman Christopher Finch said in a memorandum announcing the mandate.
The Virgin Islands State Nurses’ Association Collective Bargaining Unit filed an emergency motion on Aug. 13 in V.I. Superior Court, later amended to include the Registered Nurses’ Leadership Union, seeking to block the mandate.
However, the V.I. Superior Court lacks jurisdiction to issue an order on what is essentially a labor dispute without a hearing, the government said in its response to the motion on Friday.
Moreover, the V.I. Government Hospital and Health Facilities Corporation, Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital and Schneider Regional Medical Center are within their rights to implement a vaccine mandate given the ongoing COVID-19 emergency, Assistant Attorney General Venetia H. Velazquez wrote in the government’s response to the unions’ motion.
“The Plaintiffs improperly seek to enjoin their employer, VIGHHFC, from taking actions deemed necessary in light of the ongoing COVID-19 emergency at the hospital facilities in the Virgin Islands. Additionally, applicable law would deprive the court of jurisdiction to grant this request for injunctive relief, as this controversy arises of a labor dispute and the facts as alleged, preclude said relief,” Velazquez states.
According to the unions’ Aug. 13 emergency motion, the mandate will result in crippling staff shortages at the territory’s hospitals, where they say more than 55 percent of nurses are not vaccinated.
Moreover, their motion says the mandate violates their collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, and due process rights.
“The vaccine mandate is a violation of the CBA and interferes with and prevents employees from exercising their rights under the CBA,” the unions’ motion states.
“Employees stand to lose their jobs at the only two hospitals in the territory, wages, benefits and the bargained for consideration under the parties’ CBA. In addition, the hospitals’ employees are under threat of employment termination, and to remain employed, are being forced to take a substance into their body that the long-term effects of which are unknown,” the motion states.
However, the government responded Friday that “the vaccine policy was implemented in keeping with the hospitals’ mission to protect its patients during the pandemic as well as its staff and visitors, and in line with the American Hospital Association’s guidance that hospitals adopt mandatory vaccine policies to preserve their overarching health care mission.”
The hospitals’ medical staff presidents, Dr. Tai Hunte-Ceasar on St. Thomas and Dr. Ramesh Lakhram on St. Croix, also wrote letters noting the need to ensure workplace safety and that of hospitalized patients through vaccinations.
Additionally, “the American Nurses Association has similarly issued guidance, to which Plaintiff VISNA is a signatory, supporting mandatory vaccines for health care workers. … Indeed, this court may take judicial notice that the governor of the Virgin Islands declared an Emergency in March 2020 as we continue to deal with the COVID pandemic, which continues to remain in effect,” the motion states.
It also notes that President Joe Biden has implemented a vaccine policy for nursing homes, which will face the loss of federal funding if their employees are not vaccinated against COVID-19.
If the court chooses not to dismiss the plaintiffs’ motion, the V.I. Government Hospital and Health Facilities Corporation has asked it to order them to post security in the amount of $100,000 “to pay the costs and damages sustained by any party found to have been wrongfully enjoined or restrained,” and to set a schedule for filing an opposition brief.
The court fight comes as the V.I. Health Department reported four more COVID-19 fatalities on Monday, bringing the territory’s death toll to 49 – 14 of them recorded since July 22.
Health officials have said the recent surge in cases is due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, and the low rate of vaccination in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Just 47.9 percent of the territory’s eligible residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the New York Times database on Monday.
The University of the Virgin Islands is the only other USVI institution to have issued a vaccine mandate.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has resisted doing the same for V.I. government workers, saying that despite numerous government office closures in recent weeks due to COVID-19 infections or exposure, he prefers to continue to “incentivize” employees to get vaccinated.
Colin Milligan, a spokesperson for the American Hospital Association, told CNN in early August that more than a quarter of all hospitals in the U.S. – nearly 1,500 – now require staffers to get a COVID vaccine and more are following suit as they seek to prevent staff shortages and keep employees from becoming vectors of the disease. With the federal Food and Drug Administration formally approving the Pfizer vaccine on Monday, the number of employers and institutions mandating vaccinations is expected to rise.
“While this and other vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement.