COVID vaccine mandates challenged by pro athletes, litigation, scientific research

Brooklyn Nets star blasts New York City mayor for not letting Kyrie Irving play. Rhode Island backs off vaccine mandate for healthcare workers ahead of hearing. New research finds "moderate physical activity" effective against severe COVID.

Updated: March 14, 2022 - 11:08pm

Two years into America's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine mandates are under growing siege by litigation, scientific research and an all-time NBA great.

Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant shared his bewilderment about why his unvaccinated teammate Kyrie Irving, another all-time great, could now enter their home arena as a paying spectator but not take the court as an active player under New York City's private-sector worker vaccine mandate.

"This is ridiculous," Durant said in a press conference after Sunday's home game, when his 53 points helped the Nets squeak past the Knicks as the former chase the sixth playoff spot to avoid next month's play-in tournament. Irving can only legally play in four of the Nets' final 14 games, according to SportsNet New York.

"It just feels like, at this point, somebody's trying to make a statement or point to flex their authority," Durant said, speculating that Mayor Eric Adams wants "some attention" by continuing to treat unvaccinated people differently. "Eric, you gotta figure this out."

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Durant is the highest-profile current NBA player to question vaccine mandates as the milder Omicron variant tears through fully vaccinated and even boosted populations. Retired Shaquille O'Neal said last month he now opposes mandates even though he was critical of Irving's medical choice last fall.

Irving might want to consider litigation, if last week's victory for an unvaccinated Rhode Island doctor is any indication. 

Four days before a scheduled court hearing on its healthcare worker (HCW) COVID vaccine mandate, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) filed a dismissal stipulation stating that the emergency decree had been "withdrawn" and that oral surgeon Stephen Skoly can return to his practice after more than five months.

Skoly sued for recognition of his natural immunity in early February. He also cited documentation of "an association" between COVID vaccination and onset of Bell's Palsy, a condition he has twice suffered, and RIDOH's allowance for infected but vaccinated healthcare workers to treat patients.

According to his lawyers at the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), Skoly's practice treated more than 800 patients per month, "plus state psychiatric hospital patients and state prison inmates."

The state proposed a permanent regulation in late February that would let HCWs choose between COVID vaccination and wearing N95 masks, the accommodation sought by Skoly. An accompanying cost-benefit analysis said not allowing that choice would be acting "capriciously."

NCLA seized on the language in a March 3 filing, saying the state had "acknowledge[d] the correctness" of Skoly's argument. Rhode Island filed an objection four days before approving the vaccine-or-mask choice for a new temporary mandate.

The Ocean State Current, which is published by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, claimed NCLA plans to seek attorney's fees and damages from the state for violating Skoly's constitutional rights. NCLA lawyer Brian Rosner would only tell Just the News "we're considering our options for the future litigation."

Just the News asked RIDOH what role if any Skoly's lawsuit played in the state's decision not to renew the emergency mandate when it expired Saturday, as it had done Feb. 10. "The emergency regulations expired," public information officer Joseph Wendelken said. "Emergency regulations are time-limited. An agency cannot continue to re-promulgate them indefinitely."

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has fed hesitancy about his own COVID vaccine in recent interviews, first acknowledging its negligible effect against Omicron and now seemingly apologizing for the vaccine technology it chose, which has been correlated with heart inflammation in young men.

In a Washington Post interview Thursday, the veterinarian explained why his new book "Moonshot" says it was "counterintuitive" for Pfizer to use mRNA technology.

Pfizer had "very good experience" with adenovirus and protein vaccines, but only two years with mRNA trying to develop a flu vaccine, he said, noting this technology had "never delivered a single product." While Bourla was skeptical, Pfizer subordinates were "very very convinced that [mRNA] was the right way to go," and "I followed my instinct."

The failure of mRNA vaccines to stop infection or transmission could be lucrative for their makers.

A week after Bloomberg reported share prices for Moderna and Pfizer partner BioNTech had fallen 50% this year, Barron's reported Monday that their stocks had jumped 15% on talk of a fourth dose and climbing COVID cases in China.

Pfizer shares also rose on Bourla's Sunday comments that a fourth dose would be "necessary" against evolving COVID variants. He told "Face the Nation" the company is submitting the data for the fourth dose to the FDA for approval. 

As for its third dose, which Bourla previously said only provides "reasonable protection" against Omicron hospitalization, Pfizer should have trial data on its effect on children under 5 by next month, he said.

As pharmaceutical and medical officials pivot to emphasizing COVID vaccines' effectiveness in preventing hospitalization, new research by Canadian and South African scientists suggests a less invasive alternative: "moderate physical activity."

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the study reviewed "physical activity data" collected from "smart devices, clocked gym attendance and mass event participation." It covered more than 65,000 people who participated in an insurer behavioral change program and had a COVID diagnosis from March 2020 through June 2021. 

Accounting for "demographics and comorbidities including conditions known to influence COVID-19 outcomes" and "patient complexity," researchers found the lowest rates of hospitalization and death among those with more than 150 minutes of weekly physical activity, but also substantial reductions among those spending 60-149 minutes.

The findings applied "even among people with chronic medical conditions which may typically worsen the prognosis," Western University epidemiologist Saverio Stranges, one of the researchers, said in a university press release

His colleague Jane Thornton said it was the first study to find the association using objective physical measures rather than "survey questions." A recent and much-scrutinized CDC study purported to find that masking reduces COVID infection using a telephone survey with a low response rate.

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