UC system fires physician who challenged COVID-19 vaccine mandate in lawsuit – Daily News

A UC Irvine School of Medicine physician who filed a federal lawsuit claiming a natural immunity exemption to the university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate has been fired for refusing the vaccine.

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the medical school and director of the medical ethics program at UCI Health, revealed in a blistering blog post he was terminated Dec. 16 after nearly 15 years at the university.

“Two years ago I never could have imagined that the university would dismiss me and other doctors, nurses, faculty, staff, and students for this arbitrary and capricious reason,” he wrote in the post. “Everyone at the university seemed to be a fan of my work until suddenly they were not.

“Once I challenged one of their policies I immediately became a ‘threat to the health and safety of the community.’ No amount of empirical evidence about natural immunity or vaccine safety and efficacy mattered at all. The university’s leadership was not interested in scientific debate or ethical deliberation.”

Officials with UCI declined to discuss Kheriaty’s firing and UC system officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Lawsuit dismissed

Kheriaty, 45, filed a lawsuit in August in U.S. District Court against the University of California Board of Regents and Michael V. Drake, the system’s president, to block the vaccine mandate and seeking a return to work unvaccinated. He also requested the court declare the mandate unconstitutional.

“This policy is illogical and cannot withstand strict scrutiny or even a rational basis test because naturally immune individuals, like plaintiff, have at least as good or better immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19 than do individuals who are vaccinated,” the lawsuit states.

U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna ruled against Kheriaty on Dec. 8, stating the UC system vaccine mandate is “rationally related” to stemming the spread of COVID-19.

Kheriaty has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “There are some legal questions the court needs to answer about the limits of mandates during public health emergencies,” said Kheriaty, who remains optimistic he might yet win his court case.

Kheriaty has been a vocal opponent of the UC system’s vaccine mandate and has penned several opinion articles on the topic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

“Forcing those with natural immunity to be vaccinated introduces unnecessary risks without commensurate benefits — either to individuals or the population as a whole — and violates their rights guaranteed under the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment,” he said.

Freedom of choice

In an interview Thursday, Dec. 30, Kheriaty said he doesn’t oppose the COVID-19 vaccine, but believes individuals should have the right to decide whether to receive it.

The UC system adopted a policy in July requiring, with few exceptions, all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus before they are allowed on campus, in a facility or an office. Individuals are required to show proof of vaccination.

“Employees who choose not to be vaccinated, and have no approved exemption, accommodation or deferral, potentially put others’ health at risk and may face disciplinary actions,” the policy states.

The policy has since been updated to require COVID-19 booster shots for students, faculty and staff, Kheriaty said.

Natural immunity

Kheriaty’s lawsuit claims that his exposure to COVID-19 in 2019 gives him superior immunity to the virus compared to those who are vaccinated.

“Natural immunity will prevent a virus from being able to replicate and shed in the naturally immune individual,” the complaint says. In contrast, it says, COVID-19 vaccines appear to reduce symptoms in some but still permit the vaccinated to become infected with and transmit the virus.

The suit also cites a July 17 email reportedly from a UCI dean to medical school faculty and residents stating there had been a substantial increase in “breakthrough infections” among vaccinated university health care workers.

‘Dizzying and surreal’

Meanwhile, Kheriaty said officials with the UC system refused to allow him to use accumulated paid time off after he was placed on unpaid suspension in October.

“That is to say, I was ordered to stay off campus because I was not vaccinated, but I also could not take vacation at home because I was not vaccinated,” he said in the blog post. “In violation of every basic principle of just and fair employment, the university tried to prevent me from doing any outside professional activities while I was on unpaid suspension.

“In an effort to pressure me to resign, they wanted to restrict my ability to earn an income not only at the university but outside the university as well. It was dizzying and at times surreal.”

However, Kheriaty said he isn’t bitter, even as UC system officials maintain his firing is unrelated to his lawsuit.

“The people at UCI that I worked with were not really responsible for my firing, they were taking orders from the UC office of the president,” he said. “As for the people at the top (of the UC system), I think what they are doing is deeply misguided. I’m moving forward and moving on and looking for other professional opportunities.”

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