Judge Upholds Kentucky Hospital's Vaccine Mandate, Cites SCOTUS Smallpox Ruling in 1905

A federal judge in Kentucky said Friday that a state health care system can require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, citing a Supreme Court decision that upheld a smallpox vaccine mandate in Massachusetts in 1905.

In a 20-page ruling, U.S. District Judge David Bunning said St. Elizabeth Healthcare can mandate its more than 10,000 employees in Northern Kentucky to be vaccinated in response to the pandemic. The health care system is the largest employer in the region and is requiring all of its employees to have at least one dose of the vaccine by October 1st.

"Actual liberty for all of us cannot exist where individual liberties override potential injury done to others," Bunning said in the ruling, while adding that the vaccine mandate is "substantially less restrictive" than the one in 1905, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer. That Supreme Court case ruled that it was constitutional for the Massachusetts Board of Health to require vaccination against smallpox during an epidemic.

"It is within the police power of a State to enact a compulsory vaccination law, and it is for the legislature, and not for the courts, to determine in the first instance whether vaccination is or is not the best mode for the prevention of smallpox and the protection of the public health," the 1905 case stated, according to Justia.

St. Elizabeth announced its vaccine mandate for workers without religious or medical exemptions in August. Under the new rule, employees will have until November 1 to become fully inoculated against the virus.

In response, dozens of the hospital group's employees filed a lawsuit earlier this month asking Bunning to declare the vaccine mandate illegal and to temporarily block the requirement while the case was reviewed in court, according to the Enquirer.

On Friday, Bunning said that while employees have expressed that they are suspicious about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, the hospital group has the right to create its own terms of employment.

COVID-19 vaccine
A federal judge in Kentucky ruled that a state health care system can require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Here, vials and syringes of COVID vaccines are displayed for a photograph at a Culver City Fire Department vaccination clinic on August 5, 2021, in California. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images

The federal judge said the case is about whether a private employer can "modify its employment conditions to require employees to be vaccinated in response to an unprecedented global pandemic," the Enquirer reported.

Bunning added that if an employee believes individual liberties are more important than conditions of employment, that person can alternatively look for another job.

An attorney representing St. Elizabeth said Friday that the ruling "could not be more strongly in our favor."

"This is great news for St. Elizabeth patients, for St. Elizabeth associates and for our whole community," Mark Guilfoyle said. "This mandate is going to help reduce community spread, and it's going to help keep people out of the hospital, which is already stressed."

The hospital group has previously said that its vaccine requirement is "a duty to provide an environment that is as safe as possible for patients" and "to provide a workplace that is free of recognized hazards."