Donald Trump admin seeks to stop 17 states from enforcing opt-out on flu shot rule

Former vice-president’s lawyers seek to stop opt-out requirement under the Obama administration that would require employers to give influenza vaccines to their workers

President Barack Obama’s Labor Department on Monday asked a federal judge to bar 17 states from enforcing the opt-out requirement under the Obama administration that would require employers to give influenza vaccines to their workers.

Democratic Illinois senator Dick Durbin introduced legislation to exempt employees with religious or personal objections from a new Trump administration rule requiring that employers give influenza vaccines to their workers.

The Obama administration issued a rule in 2014 and 2015 requiring all workers in high-risk occupations such as airlines, meat packing and hotels to be vaccinated against the flu.

The rule would have made it a criminal offense for an employer to refuse to provide the shots to any of its workers. It would also have imposed “criminal sanctions on the employer or certain officers or employees if they continue to do so despite knowing that, by failing to comply with the FDA influenza vaccine requirement, the employer and officers or employees themselves are at substantial risk of becoming ill with the influenza virus and transmitting the virus to others”.

However, the Obama administration administratively revoked the rule because it lacked congressional authorization to make the sweeping changes the administration proposed, raising the risk that states would try to enforce it.

Lobbyists for Republicans on the House and Senate agriculture committees pushed to reinstate the rule and asked to be included in the litigation brought by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

In a motion filed in the US district court for the District of Columbia, the department’s lawyers said state attorneys general had no authority to enforce the rule because they did not issue it and “unlawfully claim jurisdiction”.

The bill proposed by Durbin and Republican US senator Todd Young would exempt employees from vaccinations on religious or personal grounds. It would make it illegal for an employer or government agency to “limit an employee’s ability to practice religion, conduct minor family activities, or function in a family, including the right to refuse vaccinations”.

Other countries, including Canada, Australia and France, have had varying degrees of success in mandating vaccines against the flu, the Labor Department said.

It noted that emergency room visits and hospitalizations for flu were expected to increase during the 2018-19 flu season, the first since the vaccine’s effectiveness has dropped below 50%.

“The benefits of vaccination, including improved health and reduced illness, outweigh any risk from these pre-existing medical conditions,” it said.

The Labor Department also says that when the Obama administration issued the rule, antiviral drug manufacturers received about $2bn in orders.

Medical experts say vaccines against flu aren’t needed for everyone. Roughly four in 10 Americans do not get a flu shot each year. Flu vaccination is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people ages six months and older. It is not recommended for children under two or for people with certain pre-existing medical conditions, including asthma, diabetes, obesity and weakened immune systems.

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