Oral surgeon files complaint over RI vaccine mandate

By Melissa Busch, DrBicuspid.com associate editor

February 8, 2022 -- A Rhode Island oral and maxillofacial surgeon filed a complaint on February 4 against the state governor and a senior health department official who ordered the clinician to stop treating patients until he was vaccinated for COVID-19.

Last October, the State of Rhode Island Department of Health ordered Dr. Stephen Skoly Jr. to close his 11-person dental and surgical practice until he complied with Rhode Island's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Skoly is now seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against enforcement of the compliance order that resulted in shutting down his practice.

Skoly, who claims he's not an antivaxxer, has a history of Bell's palsy paralysis and opted not to get vaccinated due to the uncertainty of the risk of palsy recurrence, according to documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island. Furthermore, the complaint states that Skoly has natural immunity because he contracted COVID-19 in December 2020, and his risk to a vulnerable patient is "at worst, identical to the risk posed by a physician whose COVID-19 immunity is achieved through vaccination."

The complaint, filed against Gov. Daniel McKee and interim health department director Dr. James McDonald, calls the decision to suspend Skoly's practice "arbitrary and irrational." Skoly is also seeking an injunction to allow him to reopen his practice again.

"The Rhode Island Department of Health has mysteriously refused to follow the science when it comes to natural immunity," Mark Chenoweth, executive director and general counsel of the nonpartisan nonprofit New Civil Liberties Alliance, who is representing Skoly, said in a press release. "Governor McKee has no valid basis to bar Dr. Skoly from performing oral surgery, as it would be perfectly safe."

Alleged unfair treatment

The complaint claims that Skoly wants to be treated like other healthcare professionals who have been granted medical and religious exemptions and remain able to care for even the most vulnerable patients. After the state ordered him to stop seeing patients in October, Skoly requested a medical exemption. However, it was denied because Rhode Island did not recognize the risk of Bell's palsy recurrence as an acceptable condition for a medical exemption, according to the complaint.

Those who receive exemptions can continue to practice their professions, including treating vulnerable patients, if they adhere to precautions such as masking. Despite agreeing to comply with safety measures, including wearing an N95 mask when treating patients, Skoly cannot see patients, according to the suit.

"Under these circumstances, barring Dr. Skoly from his profession is an irrational and unfair application of the regulation," according to the complaint.

Furthermore, Skoly claims that his inability to practice has had a detrimental effect on the approximately 800 patients treated monthly at his practice, as well as patients he treats at the state psychiatric hospital and state prison. Additionally, this is an even greater hardship to state residents because there are few practicing oral and maxillofacial surgeons in the state, according to the complaint.

The clinician stated that he can get most of his staff together and begin treating patients again within 48 hours if the court rules in his favor.

"In any event, vulnerable people have had access to the vaccine for a year, and anyone who wants to get the vaccine may do so," according to the complaint. "There is no need to force the vaccine upon Dr. Skoly, particularly considering his naturally acquired immunity."

Vaccine mandates and organized dentistry

The issue of mandatory COVID-19 vaccines has been a hot-button topic, and some dental healthcare professionals have weighed in on the matter. In September, a dozen oral health organizations, including the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), announced in a statement that COVID-19 vaccinations should be mandatory for oral healthcare workers, students, and residents.

The ADA was absent from the call in September to require COVID-19 vaccinations. Instead, the ADA has recommended dentistry receive vaccines but has stopped short of saying they should be required.

A study published online in January in the Journal of Dental Sciences revealed that many practicing dentists worldwide remain reluctant to receive vaccinations for COVID-19.


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