By Terri Jo Neff |
COVID-19 exhaustion is not a medical term, although what it represents can be as emotionally fatiguing as the virus can be physically draining. It describes the sense of frustration and weariness that comes from reacting 24/7 to a pandemic for the last 20 months.
AZ Free News looks at some of the events which occurred last week in federal courthouses, corporate offices, and the Arizona statehouse which illustrate the confusing regulations, legal rulings, and political posturing commonly found with COVID-19 exhaustion.
Private vs. Public Employees
On Dec. 15, Gov. Doug Ducey issued yet another executive order concerning COVID-19. Among the nine-page order are 19 words which seemingly ensure municipal, county, and state officials cannot impose any COVID-19 vaccination on citizens, businesses, or public employees:
“No person shall be required by this state, or any city, town or county to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine…”
Yet just two days later, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero issued a dismissive response to Ducey’s order as she doubled down on enforcing a city ordinance passed in November that allows for termination of any city employee who did not provide prove of vaccination or had not gone through an exemption process.
Meanwhile, the illnesses and deaths of several public safety workers across Arizona who contracted COVID-19 are being classified as work-related, which allows for various financial benefits for the employee or family. At the same time, a growing number of private companies have discontinued assistance for unvaccinated frontline employees who contact COVID-19.
The latest employer to do so is Kroger Co., which owns 2,700 supermarkets and multi-department stores across the country under several names. In Arizona, Kroger operates the Fry’s Food Stores.
According to Kroger’s announcement, any of the company’s 465,000 employees who are not vaccinated will no longer be eligible for two weeks of paid emergency leave if they fall ill. In addition, a $50 monthly health insurance surcharge will soon be imposed onunvaccinated nonunion employees.
A similar COVID-19 health plan surcharge was implemented by Pima County against several hundred of its employees who have not been vaccinated. The county’s action, which is expected to cost employees $100 a month, is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed last week by the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs (AZCOPS).
Another problem that has developed as a result of various vaccination mandates is the uneven -and potentially discriminatory- decisions by companies and government entities in response to applications for religious and medical exemptions. There are also concerns over employee privacy.
The City of Phoenix issued its own COVID-19 vaccination mandate back in November, citing the city’s status as a federal contractor. The city’s 14,000 or so employees were given a Jan. 18 deadline, along with the option of applying for a medical or religious exemption.
Many employees balked at the exemption process after learning they would have to reveal deeply personal medical and religious information to fellow city employees with the Human Resources, Equal Opportunity, and Law departments.
The Phoenix mandate is on hold while the federal court address challenges to the Biden Administration’s federal contractor vaccination mandate. If reactivated, the city’s mandate allows for termination.
Federal Court Decisions
While a legal challenge or two have been threatened against Ducey’s latest executive order, Arizonans who work for the federal government have not had success challenging President Joe Biden’s executive order that requires federal employees to get the shot.
But for workers of private companies with 100 or more employees, for those who work for a federal contractor, or whose employer receives Medicare & Medicaid funds, things get a whole lot murkier.
A federal appeals court recently put on hold the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services rules which require staff at any facility which participates in the Medicare and Medicaid programs to get the COVID-19 vaccination, regardless of whether that staff member has patient contact.
But even if that rule never goes into effect, healthcare workers in Arizona may not have recourse to challenge any employer mandated vaccination policy, thanks to Ducey’s Dec. 15 executive order. The governor specifically allows “a health care institution licensed pursuant to A.R.S. Title 36, Chapter 4” to require its employees to be vaccinated, although a medical and religious exemption must be offered.
There is also a Biden executive order which requires federal contractors and subcontractors to implement a mandatory employee vaccination policy. A federal court order put that mandate on hold earlier this month, but the U.S. Department of Justice continues to argue the President has authority to impose such a requirement on America’s private businesses.
The Biden Administration mandate with the biggest reach is one issued by OSHA that affects more than 80 million workers. An emergency OSHA rule requires companies with 100 or more employees to implement COVID-19 vaccination protocols or face financial penalties. The OSHA rule also requires unvaccinated workers to undergo frequent testing, and only provides for a medical exemption.
A federal court had put the OSHA rule on hold due to legal challenges from multiple states and employers. However, last Friday a federal appellate court allowed the mandate to go into effect pending any possible action by the U.S. Supreme Court which was asked on Saturday by several parties to get involved sooner than later.
It did not take long for OSHA to react to last week’s lifting of the hold. The agency issued a statement Saturday warning those companies with more than 100 employees to comply by Jan. 10 or face citations and penalties.
The Trauma Surgeon
Mental COVID-19 exhaustion can also be caused by the frustration brought on by inane vaccination mandate protocols. A glaring head-scratcher of such a mandate comes from Phoenix-based Banner Health, Arizona’s largest private employer.
Until recently, Dr. Devin L. Gray held medical privileges at several Banner hospitals, just as he does at many other Maricopa County hospitals. But Gray, a surgeon with 30 years of experience, is no longer allowed to use his specialty skills as a life-saving trauma surgeon at Banner’s facilities.
The reason? A Banner Health administrator did not find Gray’s request for a religious exemption to the company’s vaccination mandate to be sincere. The other hospitals -Arizona General Hospitals, Chandler Regional Medical Center, Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, and Mountain View Medical Center- did.
Gray has asked the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to look into the exemption inconsistencies, as well as the amount of deeply personal information some companies are demanding from employees who apply for a medical or religious exemption.
In the meantime, Gray has been told by a Banner Health executive that he can be treated as a patient at their facilities. He is also free to visit patients at a Banner facility. But he can’t treat those patients’ medical emergencies.