Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters in the Maine State House, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Augusta. Credit: David Sharp / AP

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston late Tuesday rejected a challenge to Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers saying the state’s interest “in safeguarding its residents is paramount.”

Maine’s mandate requires health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 29 or risk losing their jobs.

The decision was appealed Wednesday afternoon to the U.S. Supreme Court for a second time. On Tuesday, that court  refused to issue an injunction to stop enforcement of the mandate.

The decision from the three-judge panel marks the latest legal defeat as vaccine mandate opponents attempt to keep the requirement from being enforced in nine days. The opponents’ only hope of preventing that now lies with the U.S. Supreme Court.

In denying their emergency request to halt the mandate, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said opponents could make that emergency request again of the nation’s high court after the 1st Circuit ruled.

The judges in Boston upheld a decision issued last week by a federal judge in Maine. Judges in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals have issued an injunction putting New York’s vaccine mandate on hold. It also does not have a religious exemption.

“Few interests are more compelling than protecting public health against a deadly virus. In promulgating the rule at issue here, Maine has acted in response to this virus to protect its healthcare system by meeting its three goals of preventing the overwhelming of its healthcare system, protecting those most vulnerable to the virus and to an overwhelmed healthcare system, and protecting the health of all Maine residents,” the ruling said.

“In focusing the vaccination requirement on healthcare workers, Maine has taken steps to increase the likelihood of protecting the health of its population, particularly those who are most likely to suffer severe consequences if they contract COVID-19 or are denied other needed medical treatment by an overwhelmed healthcare system.”

The ruling also said that the appellate court found no errors in U.S. District Judge Jon Levy’s conclusion that the mandate “promotes strong public interests and that an injunction would not serve the public interest.”

The Liberty Counsel, which filed the lawsuit in August in federal court in Bangor, claims it is representing more than 2,000 health care workers across the state. While employees may obtain medical exemptions to the vaccine requirement, there is no religious or philosophical exemption in the policy.

Maine did away with vaccine exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons for schoolchildren in 2019 to improve vaccination rates against childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and whooping cough.

Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey, whose office is charged with defending her policies in court, praised the court’s decision on Wednesday.

“This rule protects health care workers, their patients, and our health care capacity in the face of this deadly virus,” Mills said. “Just as vaccination defeated smallpox and vaccination defeated polio, vaccination is the way to defeat COVID-19. As Pope Francis said, getting vaccinated is an ‘act of love.’”

Frey praised the appellate court for “its analysis and alacrity.”

“We will continue to vigorously defend the rule against all legal challenges,” he said.

The three-judge panel in Boston that considered the legality of the mandate was made up of Jeffrey Howard of New Hampshire, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, Sandra Lynch of Massachusetts, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton and David Barron of Massachusetts, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.

Mills has said that the vaccine mandate is working and improving vaccination rates for health care workers, as they rose significantly in September.