Alaska joined 23 other states this week in a federal lawsuit attempting to stop the Biden administration from requiring that employees of the federal education program Head Start be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Alaska has joined several similar multi-state lawsuits in the two months since Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued an administrative order forbidding state agencies from following federal vaccination mandates. The order also requires Attorney General Treg Taylor to review all such mandates and determine whether there are legal grounds to challenge them in court.
Head Start is a federal program that helps children from birth to 5 years old; in Alaska, there are 17 Head Start programs serving different regions of the state.
Late last month, the federal government announced that all Head Start staff, certain contractors and volunteers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 before Jan. 31. There may be exemptions for medical conditions or for religious reasons.
The new Head Start rules also require face masks for all staff and children who are at least 2 years old. That requirement is effective immediately.
In a written statement, Dunleavy said he believes the Head Start vaccination requirement and mask mandate are a bigger danger than COVID-19 itself because he believes they will cause employees to quit and families to avoid the program.
“This new policy will create obstacles for workers and families that need the program the most,” Dunleavy said. “We will continue to fight these policies with every resource we can to protect Alaskans from these unconstitutional mandates.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Alaska, 945 residents and 31 nonresidents in Alaska have died from the virus.
Tuesday’s lawsuit was filed in Louisiana, and the states are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the vaccination and masking requirements while the case proceeds.
The state is arguing that the vaccination and masking requirements violate the 10th Amendment and that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has exceeded its authority.
Other COVID-19 lawsuits in progress:
• In November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued a mandate requiring employers with more than 100 workers to vaccinate their employees. Alaska is one of more than two dozen states that have challenged that mandate, which may be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in January. Federal appeals courts have split on the issue, and OSHA has said it will not issue any citations for noncompliance before Jan. 10.
• Alaska and nine other Republican-led states sued the Biden administration in late October to challenge a requirement that federal contractors be vaccinated against COVID-19. A district court judge in Georgia, ruling on a different lawsuit, has halted that requirement nationwide while legal proceedings continue. An appeals court declined last week to lift the pause.
• A coalition of 10 states, including Alaska, sued the federal government in November to block a vaccination requirement for health care workers. In response to the lawsuit, a Missouri-based federal judge issued a preliminary injunction halting the requirement in Alaska and several other states while legal proceedings continue.
In response to questions about the state’s role in the lawsuits, a spokesman for the Department of Law said the state is contributing legal assistance within the coalitions of the states filing each of the lawsuits. State attorneys are reviewing the filings before they are submitted to federal courts and providing feedback where necessary.
The spokesman, Aaron Sadler, did not respond to a question asking how much staff time has been spent on these cases or if there is an estimate on the cost of involvement.
Dunleavy is running for reelection and has been criticized by fellow Republican candidate and state Rep. Christopher Kurka, who says the governor has not done enough to oppose vaccination mandates.
After the first cases were filed, independent gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Bill Walker said Dunleavy’s administration was wasting money on “ill-advised legal battles.”
Democratic governor candidate Les Gara, a former state lawmaker, said Wednesday that he also opposes vaccination mandates but believes the state’s participation in these lawsuits doesn’t significantly affect the issue and are being filed primarily for campaign reasons. He criticized Dunleavy for not doing more to educate the public about the need for vaccination, particularly as the omicron variant spreads across the nation and globe.
Health officials, including those within the Dunleavy administration, have said that vaccination is the best way to protect against COVID-19. The vast majority of virus deaths and hospitalizations in Alaska have involved people who aren’t vaccinated.
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