The state's three largest universities are pausing efforts to require COVID-19 vaccination for their staff after a federal judge in Georgia blocked implementation of a Biden Administration directive that federal contractors be immunized against the virus.
The University of Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State announced in October they would be forced to comply with the mandate, announced by Biden in September, as they receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research grants.
Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, wrote in a memo at the time that non-compliance "would jeopardize this critical funding and the research component of the institution’s mission."
Since then, officials in a host of states, including Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, challenged the contractor mandate in court.
District Judge R. Stan Baker, of the Southern District of Georgia, granted a preliminary injunction on Tuesday after a Friday hearing.
Schmidt had signed the state onto the Georgia-led lawsuit, which also included Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia. The trade organization Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. intervened in the lawsuit, prompting the court to apply its ruling nationwide.
"The Court ORDERS that Defendants are ENJOINED, during the pendency of this action or until further order of this Court, from enforcing the vaccine mandate for federal contractors and subcontractors in all covered contracts in any state or territory of the United States of America," Baker wrote.
Universities wait for further guidance
Hours later, the three universities said they would halt their efforts to comply with the mandate, pending further guidance.
"Effective immediately, Kansas State University will pause its COVID-19 vaccine requirement," President Richard Myers said in an email to staff. "At this time, employees do not need to take any further action related to the vaccine requirement."
The ruling also applies to businesses that are federal contractors. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas announced that it is pausing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
"As a healthcare company, health and well-being is our number one priority; we still encourage our employees and all Kansans to receive the vaccine as a way to protect themselves from the virus," spokesperson Rebecca Witte said in a statement.
KU said 83% of workers at their Lawrence and Edwards campuses had uploaded documents certifying they had gotten the shots. The university said they "believe the actual vaccination rate among our employees to be even higher than that." At Kansas State, meanwhile, 86% of staff are vaccinated as of Dec. 6.
The universities had already pushed back deadlines for compliance with their own mandates in light of delays to the federal contractor order, which had been moved to January to fall in line with other orders affecting workers at large businesses and health care workers.
The only university to publicly announce deadlines in light of those changes was Kansas State, with Myers telling the Board of Regents last month that staff had until Dec. 1 to request a medical or religious exemption to the shots. It is unclear what effect the new guidance will have on that deadline.
The universities also must comply with a state law requiring employers with vaccine mandates, including the universities, to be much more lenient in granting religious or medical exemptions. It also would limit the types of questions the employers could ask workers to determine whether they qualify for such an exemption.
KU and K-State grant hundreds of exemptions
University of Kansas spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said the school had granted 193 religious or medical exemptions, comprising about 2.2% of all employees, before pausing the mandate. Kansas State spokesperson Michelle Geering said the university has granted 455 requests.
Schmidt's office sent cease-and-desist letters to both KU and Kansas State last month, alleging their exemption forms were in violation of the new law by illegally inquiring about the sincerity of a person's religious beliefs.
"Under the new law, a written statement signed by the employee is the only relevant evidence of the sincerity of the employee’s belief," Schmidt wrote
The forms drew similar scrutiny from legislators while they were in the process of drafting the new law. In response to Schmidt's concerns, KU said they had made changes to their form, while Flanders said in a statement that all the schools would comply with state statute.
The blow for the federal government in court comes at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are again rising in Kansas. The new surge coincides with a stagnant vaccination rate that is nowhere near a herd immunity threshold, prompting public health officials to prepare for the coronavirus to become endemic.
Schmidt cheered the ruling in a statement.
"Federal courts continue to recognize that these overreaching, one-size-fits all mandates from the Biden administration are unlawful,” he said. “I continue to encourage Kansans to be vaccinated, but that personal health care decision should be made by each individual and not mandated by the federal government.”
In the Georgia courtroom, the Biden administration had argued that issuing an injunction would cause more harm, "further delaying the vaccination of the thousands of currently-unvaccinated individuals working on federal contracts (thereby permitting the continued spread of COVID-19)," the judge wrote.
Baker, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said he disagrees.
He said the injunction "would, essentially, do nothing more than maintain the status quo; entities will still be free to encourage their employees to get vaccinated, and the employees will still be free to choose to be vaccinated."
The judge said compliance with the vaccine mandate would "significantly alter their ability to perform federal contract work which is critical to their operations" and "imperil the financial viability" of contractors. He agreed that the executive order caused "workplace strife" and "untold economic upheaval in recent months."
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-979-6100.
Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: KU, Kansas State, Wichita State pause vaccine mandate implementation