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Judge in SC will soon hear arguments over Savannah River Site vaccine rules

USCA Vaxx Clinic, Moderna (copy)

Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are seen on a table at a vaccination clinic hosted by Aiken Regional Medical Centers. (Colin Demarest/Staff/File)

A federal judge will next week review a COVID-19 vaccination requirement instituted by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, more than a month after employees sued the Savannah River Site contractor and demanded the mandate be nullified.

U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs is set to consider the employees’ plea for judicial intervention — made in hopes of stymieing job losses — as well as the contractor’s request to dismiss the case during a Nov. 30 hearing in Columbia.

Childs in a Monday filing said the matter was of “emergency nature,” as the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions vaccination deadline fast approaches.

Donald Brown Jr., an attorney representing the dozens of workers who brought suit, in a mid-October interview stressed that timing was critical: “I do think it’s a matter of urgency, clearly,” he said. “These folks have legitimate concerns and we hope they’ll get some relief.”

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, which conducts environmental cleanup and nuclear weapons work at the Savannah River Site south of Aiken, rolled out vaccine requirements in early September, before President Joe Biden ordered private-sector workers be vaccinated or face regular testing.

The Biden administration on Tuesday asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to revive its workplace vaccine rules, which were recently blocked by another court.

“Delaying this standard would endanger many thousands of people and would likely cost many lives per day,” government attorneys said. “COVID-19 has already killed over 750,000 people in the United States and caused 'serious, long-lasting, and potentially permanent health effects' for many more.”

In a memo to the workforce earlier this year, SRNS President and CEO Stuart MacVean said the decision to make vaccination a condition of employment came after “much discussion” with leadership. The move was also based on “scientific evidence concerning the vaccines’ effectiveness and guidance from the” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.

The employees suing Savannah River Nuclear Solutions doubt the safety of the various vaccines, documents filed with the court show, and believe the mandate constitutes the illegal practice of medicine in South Carolina.

While there “is reason to believe that a pharmacist, for example, would have some basic understanding of drugs and their effect upon the human body because that person has basic knowledge in the limited task allowed,” reads a motion filed Nov. 19, “there is absolutely no reason to believe whatsoever that a private employer, which works primarily in a nuclear facility, would know the first thing about human physiology, about the human body, or about how humans react to certain medicines or vaccines.”

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions employs some 5,500 people, nearly all of whom are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Savannah River Site manager Michael Budney on Nov. 15 told an advisory board that vaccine rules would not jeopardize operations at the site.

A Department of Energy spokesperson on Oct. 21 similarly told the Aiken Standard that mandates “will not disrupt the critical work we do every day.”

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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