PROVIDENCE (AP) — Several people employed in Rhode Island's health care industry have filed a federal challenge to the state's coronavirus vaccine mandate for health care workers, alleging it is unconstitutional because it does not allow religious exemptions.

Employees of state-licensed health care facilities in the state are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 1 or they risk losing their jobs. The state extended the deadline a month in certain cases where firing unvaccinated workers would compromise patient safety.

Most other states allow for religious exemptions, according to the suit.

“Rhode Island is not an island unto itself,” according to the complaint filed Thursday by attorney Joseph Larisa Jr. “If across America religious exemptions can be accommodated consistent with patient safety, then as a matter of law and logic, the same applies here.”

The four plaintiffs are identified in the lawsuit only by a single initial. They are described as a doctor; a nurse; a hospital clerk who attends medical school; and a health unit coordinator at a hospital.

One plaintiff was fired after requesting and being denied a religious exemption. The others face termination when the mandate takes effect.

The plaintiffs “wish to keep their identities anonymous to avoid harassment in the present environment,” the lawsuit says.

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the vaccine mandate on the grounds that it will lead to religious discrimination.

Spokespeople for Gov. Daniel McKee and the state Department of Health said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Pfizer booster shots

Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine boosters are now available to certain segments of Rhode Island's population, the state Department of Health announced Friday.

They include people 65 and older and residents of long-term care settings regardless of age; people ages 50–64 with underlying medical conditions; and people ages 18-64 who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission based on their jobs.

The state's announcement came the day after the Food and Drug Administration granted an additional emergency use authorization for the administration of booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine for people at least six months after their last Pfizer shot.

Approximately 130,000 people in the state may be eligible under the approved guidelines, the agency said.

Demand is expected to be high and the the state expects to make minor changes in online vaccine registration systems in the coming days to reflect new eligibility, the statement said.

More than 710,000 people in the state are already fully vaccinated, or about 77% of the eligible population, the department said.

Detention facility outbreak

Dozens of detainees and several staff members at a Rhode Island jail have tested positive for COVID-19 this week, according to the facility's warden.

Fifty detainees and seven staff members at the publicly-owned but privately-run Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls have tested positive, Warden Daniel Martin said in a statement Thursday.

The outbreak started when one detainee tested positive last week.

In response, the facility has stepped up testing.

“We have been in contact with the RI Department of Health on our existing COVID protocols which include testing and quarantining every incoming detainee for 14 days, mandatory mask usage for staff and detainees, and thorough sanitization of common areas/surfaces,” Martin wrote.

“We have added additional protocols based on RI DOH guidance which include ongoing, mandatory testing of detainees and staff, and not allowing detainees from different pods to come into contact with each other,” he said.

The facility houses many people being detained by federal immigration authorities.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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