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Workers sue Louisiana health system to block vaccine mandate

By last week, 82% of Ochsner Health's employees were fully vaccinated, with physicians at 98%.

NEW ORLEANS — A small number of employees of Louisiana’s largest health system are suing to block a requirement that they get the COVID-19 vaccine in order to keep their jobs.

The lawsuits filed Tuesday in Louisiana state district courts challenge Ochsner Health's mandate that all employees get vaccinated by Oct. 29.

On Friday, the system added another reason to get the shots: Because COVID hospitalizations are so expensive and most hospitalized patients haven't been vaccinated, unvaccinated spouses and domestic partners on Ochsner’s health insurance plan will be charged an extra $200 a month.

“This threat has produced the opposite of its intended result; people are becoming angry at the bullying,” Jimmy Faircloth, the lawyer representing the employees, said in a news release.

“Every day we receive more calls and emails from employees around the state who are being forced to decide between taking medicine they do not want and feeding their families,” Faircloth said. “It’s an unlawful forced choice; not a free choice.”

Ochsner was preparing a response, spokeswoman Katie Fauquier said Wednesday.

The vast majority of Ochsner's 32,000 employees across Louisiana and in a bit of Mississippi, including more than 1,600 physicians, are already vaccinated. By last week, 82% of its employees were fully vaccinated, with physicians at 98%.

The Caddo Parish suit named 39 employees as plaintiffs; nine employees were listed as plaintiffs in Ouachita Parish.

Louisiana’s constitution and laws guarantee citizens a right to decide their medical treatments, and courts have upheld that right, the lawsuits said. They also claim COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent disease transmission.

Studies from around the world have shown that fully vaccinated people are less likely to catch — and therefore transmit — the virus than the unvaccinated. And the shots are very effective at keeping fully vaccinated people who do catch the virus from being hospitalized or dying.

People who are not fully vaccinated make up 80% of Louisiana's current COVID-19 hospitalizations and 85% of cases from Sept. 23-29, according to the state Department of Health.

In Baton Rouge, Gov. John Bel Edwards received his Pfizer vaccine booster shot and a flu shot Wednesday during a public event at a hospital.

Though Edwards is 55, his office said he was receiving a booster shot because he holds a “high risk” job.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a booster shot for people 65 and older and people 18 and older who have certain medical conditions or who work in settings that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.