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Monkeypox Declared a National Public Health Emergency

On August 4, 2022, the Biden administration declared monkeypox a public health emergency (PHE), a step that will allow the federal government to work with more agility to combat the spreading outbreak, including via expedited vaccine distribution and expanded testing.

The PHE declaration follows the recent appointment of federal officials to head up the monkeypox response team, including Robert Fenton of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as White House national monkeypox response coordinator, and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as White House national monkeypox response deputy coordinator.

The administration also began holding what will be a recurring weekly briefing with congressional staff on August 4. A press release from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the PHE declaration can be found here.

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Monkeypox in the Workplace: Key Considerations for Employers

As of July 26, 2022, there are 3,591 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the United States, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, and the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General has declared the multi-country monkeypox outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). With much about the potential impact and scope of monkeypox still unknown, employers should consider taking proactive steps now, as may be appropriate for their workforce, to enhance and reinforce the safety protocols already in place from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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EEOC Potentially Limits Employer’s Right to Mandate COVID-19 Testing

On July 12, 2022, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) revised its guidance on compliance with disability discrimination law during the COVID-19 pandemic. While previous guidance, initially published on December 14, 2021, provided that COVID-19 viral testing was permissible for on-site employees and did not run afoul of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) due to health and safety priorities of the pandemic, the recent EEOC updates now only permit screening and viral testing measures when such measures are job-related and consistent with business necessity, holding COVID-19 testing to the same standard as other workplace medical tests. The July 12 update “makes clear that going forward employers will need to assess whether current pandemic circumstances and individual workplace circumstances justify viral screening of employees to prevent workplace transmission of COVID-19,” the EEOC said.

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OSHA Announces Plan to ‘Expand Its Presence’ in Certain Healthcare Facilities Treating COVID-19 Patients

Between March 9, 2022, and June 9, 2022, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will “expand its presence” in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities that treat COVID-19 patients and that were previously cited or issued Hazard Alert Letters for alleged COVID-19 violations. OSHA’s stated purpose is to “target[] high-hazard healthcare facilities” to “verify and assess . . . compliance actions taken” by employers to rectify prior allegations related to COVID-19 safety violations. The initiative is focusing on employers’ “readiness to address any ongoing or future COVID-19 surges.”

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As Some Healthcare Employees Work While Sick, Could Other Industries Follow Suit?

Throughout the latest COVID-19 wave, some healthcare employers have relaxed safety measures to bring COVID-positive employees back to work. According to this Corporate Counsel article, these decisions may signal a new direction in how businesses deal with safety measures as they navigate a competitive labor market and demand. McDermott’s Abigail M. Kagan noted many healthcare facilities are doing their best to balance employee safety with workplace strain.

“If a patient hears that their nurse has tested positive that morning, the patient may be uncomfortable,” Kagan noted. “ … On the other hand, if it’s the difference between having no nurse, or having a nurse that medical authorities in the (United States) seem to believe is not going to be contagious anymore, that’s something that employers have to think about.”

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Vaccine Exemption Requests Put Legal Departments in Tricky Spot

As more employers mandate vaccines for their workforces, in-house legal departments are encountering a host of challenges, including understanding religious accommodations and minimizing litigation exposure. According to this article published in Law.com, employers should have the ability to navigate Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII-related accommodation requests. However, McDermott Partner Carole Spink said many employers have never encountered the current breadth of religious exemption requests from their workforces.

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Vaccine Requirements in the Workplace

As more and more private and public companies require vaccinations, employees are finding it increasingly difficult to avoid these mandates. In this BBC Radio 5 Live interview, McDermott Partner Michelle Strowhiro noted that US employers have a right to mandate vaccination for any employee that is in an employer’s office.

“As such, if an employee is violating that policy and is coming into an office unvaccinated, an employer can take action and terminate that employee,” Strowhiro said.

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Business Groups Want to Have a Say in Biden’s Vaccine Requirement

While many of the United States’ largest corporations don’t oppose the Biden administration’s vaccine requirements for many employers, those companies say many of their questions about the administration’s rule have gone unanswered. The new rule requires employers with more than 100 employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or require weekly testing of employees.

In an article published in The Hill, McDermott Partner Michelle Strowhiro said some employers may decide to scrap the testing alternative altogether.

“Administratively, it’s going to be quite burdensome for employers, especially large employers with hundreds or thousands of employees, to track weekly the testing results for employees,” Strowhiro said.

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Mask Up, Vax Up: Illinois Governor Issues Immediate Face Covering Mandate for All, COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for Healthcare, School and State Workers and Students

On August 26, 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued Executive Order 2021-20 (the Order). The Order mandates that all individuals in Illinois who are at least two years old and who are medically able must wear face coverings indoors and in other specified settings.

In addition, the Order mandates COVID-19 vaccination for certain professionals in healthcare and education, as well as for students and state employees, subject to certain exemptions which require regular COVID-19 testing.

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California Requires Vaccines or Regular COVID-19 Testing for Certain Healthcare Workers and State Employees

On July 26, 2021, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued a new Order that impacts healthcare and state employers in California. According to McDermott’s Michelle S. Strowhiro, Ellen M. Bronchetti and Ludia Kwon, the CDPH Order requires that almost all healthcare employers verify the vaccination status of all of their workers.

The Order also requires workers who are not fully vaccinated to go through regular COVID-19 testing at specified intervals. These facilities also must have a plan in place for tracking verified worker vaccination statuses.

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