The Centers for Medicaid Services (CMS) on Thursday issued a rule saying that most health care workers in the United States will have to be considered “fully vaccinated” with a COVID-19 vaccine by Jan. 4.
The rule was handed down for all staff who are employed at Medicaid- or Medicare-funded hospitals or facilities. Unlike the Biden administration’s rule that mandates vaccinations or testing for employers with 100 or more workers, the CMS rule does not allow health care staff to opt-out of the rule by submitting to weekly testing—although religious and medical exemptions can be accommodated.
“Ensuring patient safety and protection from COVID-19 has been the focus of our efforts in combatting the pandemic and the constantly evolving challenges we’re seeing,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement. “Today’s action addresses the risk of unvaccinated health care staff to patient safety and provides stability and uniformity across the nation’s health care system to strengthen the health of people and the providers who care for them.”
A senior Biden administration official told reporters on Thursday that there is “not a testing option” available for health care workers.
“We have a higher bar for health care workers, given their critical role in ensuring the health and safety of their patients. And so, it’s either vaccination or an exemption under the rules outlined,” the official said.
Citing the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, the agency said the move is designed to prevent COVID-19 illnesses among health care staff. The new requirements will apply to some 76,000 health care providers and would cover about 17 million workers across the United States, according to the CMS.
“Facilities covered by this regulation must establish a policy ensuring all eligible staff have received the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine or a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine prior to providing any care, treatment, or other services by December 5, 2021,” the agency said.
Now, eligible health care workers have to get either two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson’s, by Jan. 4, according to the agency.
In recent weeks, a number of hospitals have already implemented vaccine requirements for their staff, prompting lawsuits and protests, while states including California and New York have enacted mandatory vaccination for health care workers.
The move, in particular, may impact rural hospitals the most severely. Several hospital CEOs have issued warnings that the federal government’s rule would prompt the closure of departments, while one executive in Texas warned that it would shut down an entire hospital.
The National Rural Health Association “believes it is important for all healthcare workers to be vaccinated, to protect both themselves and their community,” CEO Alan Morgan said in a statement to USA Today. “However, vaccine mandates will result in rural service disruptions. And as such, targeted rural federal workforce plans must be communicated and implemented.”
Also on Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its long-anticipated rule stipulating that workers at companies with 100 or more employees have to either get the vaccine or submit to weekly testing by Jan. 4—or face hefty fines. Those who do not get the vaccine will have to wear masks and will have to pay for their own COVID-19 testing, the rule stipulates.
In September, the Biden administration stated it would require employees at federal contractors to get vaccinated by Dec. 8. Also on Thursday, the government pushed back the deadline to Jan. 4 as well.
Following President Joe Biden’s Sept. 9 announcement on the mandates, a number of Republican governors and attorneys general threatened to file a lawsuit against them. So far, about a dozen GOP-led states have sued the administration over its federal contractor rule.