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Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday declined to block enforcement of Maine's COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers while they wait for the court of appeals to rule on the merits of the case.

Why it matters: The 6-3 decision in the emergency appeal was not made on the merits of the case. But in previous rulings, the justices have upheld COVID vaccine requirements — though this is the first case that involves a mandate without religious exemptions.

Details: The governor's order requires all health care workers to get vaccinated by Friday or face losing their jobs without unemployment benefits.

  • A group of health care workers sued, and earlier this month, a three-judge panel on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to block the mandate from taking effect.

What they're saying: The majority of justices on Friday did not provide a reason for denying the health care workers' request to block enforcement of the mandate until they had exhausted their appeals.

  • The three dissenting justices, Neil Gorsuch, writing, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., disagreed and further argued that the medical workers deserve an exemption.
  • "No one questions that these individuals have served patients on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic with bravery and grace for 18 months now," Gorsuch wrote in the dissent.
  • "Yet, with Maine’s new rule coming into effect, one of the applicants has already lost her job for refusing to betray her faith; another risks the imminent loss of his medical practice."

The big picture: Maine is one of three states that have issued a mandate without religious exemptions for health care workers.

Go deeper

Updated Dec 2, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on health equity in 2022

On Thursday, December 2nd, Axios health care reporter Tina Reed and congressional reporter Alayna Treene examined persisting health equity issues and the work underway to close gaps in access, featuring Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), Baltimore City Health Department Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa, and Brown University dean of the School of Public Health & Professor of Health Services, Policy, & Practice Dr. Ashish K. Jha.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha identified the assumptions policymakers should be making about coronavirus through the winter season, what the pandemic highlighted in terms of health equity issues, and the most powerful tools to funding health inequity solutions.

  • On what policymakers should consider for coronavirus next year: “The big picture point I would make to policymakers is 2022 really should be our pivot year, the year we take this acute phase of the pandemic and turn it into something that we’re going to manage more chronically over the long run. What do we need to do that? Obviously, we need to continue to get more Americans vaccinated.”
  • On the pandemic’s exposure of longstanding health inequities: “It’s taken all of the challenges we’ve had, all of the longstanding inequities we’ve had in our country and really exposed them in a way and made them worse. It hasn’t created new inequities. I would say these inequities have existed for a long time, what it has really done is just highlight them in a way that is now hard to ignore.”

Rep. Robin Kelly discussed the health care initiatives in the Build Back Better agenda, the obstacles to health equity progress, and the policy provisions shaping next year’s health care agenda.

  • On obstacles standing in the way of progress: “People have different lenses, and I think that people know we need to get these things done. There’s no excuse for our maternal mortality rates, the health care disparities. COVID put a great big spotlight on the inequities and the disparities in this country.”
  • On upcoming health care policy priorities: “I think the Build Back Better Act is a great first step, but we’ll still be discussing maternal mortality, we’ll still be looking at health equity, we’ll still be looking at diversifying the health care pipeline, diversifying clinical trials, lowering prescription drug costs.”

Letitia Dzirasa explained potential impacts of the new Omicron variant on public health messaging, addressing health equity issues at a local level, and the public health challenges at the forefront for next year.

  • On looking at data and community input to inform health equity interventions: “I think it’s very important that we look at the data, that we understand the disparities and where they exist. But as we’re planning interventions and how best to implement a particular program or outreach method, we have to be community informed, so we’re looking to the community to plan alongside us.”
  • On the public health challenges defining the year ahead: “I think the important thing to note is that all of our other public health challenges did not go away because COVID came along, and so we’re going to be playing catch up in other public health areas for quite some time. I am encouraged by the increased federal funding going towards public health, but you have to remember this is an area that has been chronically underfunded.”

Axios Chief People Officer Dominique Taylor hosted a View from the Top segment with UnitedHealth Group senior vice president and chief health equity officer U. Michael Currie, who emphasized how addressing social determinants of health helps to advance health equity.

  • “You can’t have a conversation about achieving or advancing health equity and best addressing health disparities without having a real appreciation for what these social factors or social determinants of health have on individuals achieving their best possible health.”

Thank you UnitedHealth Group for sponsoring this event.

Omicron variant found in Philadelphia man

A technician handles tubes containing swab samples for COVID-19. Photo: Ahmad Salem/Getty Images

A Northwest Philadelphia resident has tested positive for the Omicron variant, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health announced Friday.

Driving the news: The confirmed case of the new coronavirus variant involves a man in his 30s, the department said.

Movie theaters go out of style

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Vaccination rates are going up, people are going out to restaurants again — although the new COVID variant may get in the way — but they still aren't rushing back to the movies.

By the numbers: Some 49% of pre-pandemic moviegoers are no longer hitting theaters, according to a study from the film research company The Quorum, as reported by the New York Times.