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Head Start Vaccine Mandate Blocked In Florida

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - A federal judge has blocked a Biden administration rule that would require staff members at Head Start preschool centers in Florida to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, who is based in Monroe, La., issued a preliminary injunction Saturday that at least temporarily prevents the Head Start vaccination mandate in 24 states, including Florida.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody signed on to the lawsuit last month — one of a series of cases in which Florida has fought efforts by the Biden administration to require workers to be vaccinated.

Doughty concluded that the Biden administration exceeded its authority in the Head Start rule, which was issued Nov. 30. Under the rule, Head Start staff members, along with volunteers and contractors who have contact with children, would need to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 31. Also, the rule includes mask requirements for all people at Head Start centers ages 2 and older.

"The issue in this case is not whether individuals should take the COVID-19 vaccine, but whether federal agencies can mandate individuals to take a vaccine or be fired," wrote Doughty, who was nominated to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump. "In this court's opinion, the executive branch has declared it has the authority to make laws through federal agencies. A crossroad has clearly been reached in this country. If the executive branch is allowed to usurp the power of the legislative branch to make laws, then this country is no longer a democracy — it is a monarchy."

But in a document filed last week, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said federal law allows the vaccination and mask requirements. Head Start centers are federally funded and provide preschool services to children from low-income families.

"Here, the connection between the vaccine and masking requirements and student and employee health and safety is clear and direct: By requiring program personnel and participants to take the measures that most effectively reduce the risk that they contract and spread the virus that causes COVID-19, the secretary (of the Department of Health and Human Services) sought to reduce the risk that students and workers would contract the virus," the document said. "Moreover, should Head Start personnel and students become infected with COVID-19, all students' ability to learn is hampered. The secretary is simply exercising long-recognized and common sense power to adopt health and safety conditions for federally-funded programs for youth that are already subject to extensive conditions of participation."

The ruling came as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments Friday in challenges to Biden administration rules that would require COVID-19 vaccinations for workers at large businesses and at health-care providers such as hospitals and nursing homes.

Florida also has challenged those requirements, along with a requirement that employees of federal contractors be vaccinated.

Doughty ruled against the health-care vaccination mandate in a case filed by 14 states. Florida was not part of that case, and a federal judge in Pensacola rejected a request to issue a preliminary injunction against the health-care mandate. The Florida case is pending at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In his ruling Saturday in the Head Start case, Doughty acknowledged that the issue "will certainly be decided by a higher court than this one. This issue is important. The separation of powers has never been so thin."

Along with Florida, the preliminary injunction applies to Head Start centers in Louisiana, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

(©2022 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Jim Saunders contributed to this report.)

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