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Judge to decide whether R.I. health care workers can avoid COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The plaintiffs want their requests for religious exemptions to be accommodated in the same way that the state does medical exemptions

Mary Galvin, a retired pediatric nurse practitioner, protested against the vaccine mandate.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — A US District Court judge will decide whether local health care workers can avoid the state health department’s mandate for all health care workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 1 or risk losing their jobs and professional licenses.

Four health care workers in Rhode Island whose requests for religious exemptions to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate were denied had filed for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Governor Dan McKee and state health department director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott last week. The state’s mandate does not allow for religious exemptions.

The plaintiffs, who were not named in the case filings, are identified as a nurse employed by Lifespan, a Rhode Island medical school student, a health unit coordinator at a hospital that was not named, and a doctor who is employed in a “Rhode Island medical practice with other physicians.” They claimed in court filings that the state’s mandate was “unconstitutional.”

“If across America religious exemptions can be accommodated consistent with patient safety, then as a matter of law and logic, the same applies here,” wrote attorney Joseph Larisa Jr., who is representing the unvaccinated health care workers. (A former mayor of East Providence, Larisa is also the former chief of staff and executive council to governor Lincoln Almond.)


US District judge Mary S. McElroy presided over the case Wednesday during a virtual hearing that garnered more than 350 participants. Some had to be removed from the Zoom hearing for chanting “For medical freedom!” and other slogans.

During the hearing, McElroy noted that the injunction was filed more than five weeks after the state announced its vaccine mandate. She said she would try to file a decision “by the end of the day” Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Melissa E. Darigan blocked a firefighters’ union’s attempt to challenge the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.


Larisa said the health care workers’ case is different than that of the firefighters, because the health care workers are not looking to block the entire vaccine mandate. Instead, he argued, they are asking that religious exemptions be allowed.

“What we seek, very clearly, is for the state to get out of the way, and for the Federal Title VII to be operative in the state for health care providers... like it is for any other state in the country other than Rhode Island and Maine at this point,” said Larisa.

He said his clients do not understand why workers who receive medical exemptions can continue to work while wearing masks and getting routine COVID-19 tests, but workers cannot receive religious exemptions with the same accommodations.

Assistant Attorney General Michael W. Field said that the state wishes to slow the spread of COVID-19, which is why it is important to have all health care workers vaccinated unless they have a medical exemption.

Larisa said his clients do not believe that unvaccinated health care workers are “harmful.”

McElroy challenged Larisa, citing cases in other states where religious exemptions are not applicable in certain situations. She also asked why hospitals and other health care employers were not included in the lawsuit if the employers were the ones rejecting the health care workers’ requests for religious exemptions.

Shortly after the hearing, Dr. James E Fanale, the president and CEO of Care New England, issued a statement that said the system’s health care workforce had surpassed 95 percent vaccinated and that the number “continues to climb by the day and the hour.”


“As of the Oct. 1 deadline, Care New England will be 100 percent compliant with the RIDOH’s vaccine mandate,” said Fanale in his statement sent by a spokeswoman. “As healthcare workers, we are committed to providing an environment that is safe and healthy for patients, as well as staff.”

“As of Oct. 1, any Care New England healthcare worker who is not vaccinated will not be allowed to work,” he said.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.