The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has expanded its review of the acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to change the government’s flu vaccine requirement for employees of federal contractors and subcontractors.
The court Thursday allowed a district court judge’s order blocking the regulation to stand for now, rather than issuing a new decision. That means it will be at least until March 5, 2018, before the public can resume reporting on the flu vaccination rate among federal employees.
The administration is working on changes, but it’s unclear when those could be enacted.
The World Health Organization estimates flu killed more than 70,000 people globally in 2017, a rise in deaths from flu reported to the WHO.
A government-sponsored survey by the Health Resources and Services Administration released last month found that only 32 percent of federal employees have been vaccinated for the flu, but HHS officials claim vaccination is the only defense against a vaccine-preventable disease.
“While epidemiologists frequently cite influenza among the top 10 global pandemics of recent times, the past few years have seen a steady decline in the number of deaths,” said acting secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan at a briefing with reporters. “This increase in deaths in 2017-2018 has only partly reflected the change in vaccine recommendations.”
Health experts say it’s still too early to make predictions on the overall impact of the CDC’s new guidance, which means it’s impossible to say how many federal employees could have to rethink their approach to vaccinations.
The federal government, however, is in the best position to assess such impacts because the U.S. has one of the highest vaccination rates for flu in the developed world, according to state health department data.
The CDC in 2017 became the first federal agency to advise that a flu shot be included as part of an employee’s required flu shot coverage when an employee is involved in government contracting. The CDC’s decision, which was made at the direction of acting CDC director Anne Schuchat, was effectively a blank check for vaccines, given that it did not change the price or guarantee the safety of those vaccines.
As a result, the CDC said that it would give priority to licensed manufacturers of flu vaccines for the company that supplies the bulk of the vaccine to the government. These companies must administer the vaccine themselves to personnel who work at CDC’s national laboratory network, which is home to the nation’s largest stockpiles of vaccines. The CDC declined to name these companies, but the Institute of Medicine has long recommended that government agencies contract with companies that make more robust and reliable flu vaccines.
The CDC’s contracting guidelines have been used in various ways in recent years. However, in late January, CDC lawyers were notified that the government had inadvertently issued an online posting to employees of its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases that the “agency-specific rule” was being rescinded.
“We are rewriting our guidance on influenza vaccine scheduling with the emphasis on ensuring that employees who work in government-funded CDC programs also receive the greatest protection against influenza,” said Nicholas Williams, spokesman for the CDC.
On Jan. 3, President Donald Trump ordered the CDC to report the government’s annual flu vaccination rate to the public. In 2015, he also ordered the government to release its data.