A risky ‘hypothesis’?
In his complaint, Kheriaty contends that the university’s mandate and a parallel vaccination mandate for healthcare workers in California constitute an equal protection violation of the U.S. Constitution because they treat vaccinated and natural immune persons differently.
“UCI has told Plaintiff that he cannot return to his teaching position unless he receives a COVID-19 vaccine. Thus, UC is treating him differently by refusing to re-admit him to campus when other individuals who are considered immune to the virus are being admitted back simply because their immunity was created by a vaccine,” his complaint states.
“It is unscientific and lacks a rational basis, let alone a compelling reason, to allow vaccinated individuals to attend or work at UC in person when their immunity is less effective at preventing infection and spread of COVID-19 than those that have had COVID-19 while not allowing the naturally immune,” the complaint continues.
The University of California disagrees. In its legal filing responding to Kheriaty’s complaint, it calls his assertion that a prior bout with COVID-19 imparts superior protection from the virus than vaccination an “unproven hypothesis.”
The same Israeli study Kheriaty cites in his lawsuit states that “the degree and duration to which previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 affords protection against repeated infection also remains unclear.”
“UC and the public’s interest in maintaining the health and well-being of the campus community cannot be overstated. If Dr. Kheriaty’s theory that infection-induced immunity is robust and provides lifelong stable protection for every person who has recovered from COVID-19 is incorrect — it could put thousands of students, faculty and staff, not to mention vulnerable patients seeking treatment in UC medical centers, at higher risk of COVID-19 infection,” the university’s court filing states.
The university says in its response that its mandate is a reasonable measure given the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis.
“Vaccination remains the safest and most effective way for UC to protect its community,” the university’s response states.
‘God can open other doors’
Kheriaty told CNA the Medical Board of California (MBC) sent an “extremely chilling” letter to the state’s physicians in August that threatened disciplinary action if a physician issued an inappropriate mask or COVID-19 exemption.
The MBC wrote in August: “The Medical Board of California (Board) would like to inform licensees and the public that a physician who grants a mask or other exemption without conducting an appropriate prior exam and without a finding of a legitimate medical reason supporting such an exemption within the standard of care may be subjecting their license to disciplinary action.”
The MCB set up a “complaint review process” in which it encourages the public to file a complaint against a physician “if they feel that a physician is granting mask exemptions inappropriately.”
Kheriaty says that California physicians interpreted the MBC’s message to mean, “I'm not going to write any medical exemptions for vaccines.”
“It's pretty much impossible to get a medical exemption for a vaccine, even if you have an appropriate medical reason,” he said.
Kheriaty told CNA that he has a patient who went to their rheumatologist and said the rheumatologist advised them to forgo receiving the COVID-19 vaccine because of the patient’s auto-immune condition.
The rheumatologist also considered other factors, including the patient's young age, and decided that the vaccine is likely to do more harm than good for them, Kheriaty told CNA.
After the patient asked the rheumatologist for a medical exemption, the physician declined, citing fear of disciplinary action by the medical board, Kheriaty said.
Kheriaty also said he had non-religious students consult him about their conscience objections to vaccination because they did not qualify for religious exemption and did not want to lie about their non-religious beliefs.
“They had what I considered to be perfectly legitimate reasons to decline the vaccine,” he said. “They have no recourse.”
“These are people who can't come back to school, who are losing scholarships, faculty and staff who are losing their jobs,” he added.
As a teacher of medical ethics, Kheriaty thought the denial of conscience exemptions ran contrary to his own curriculum for medical students.
Kheriaty said if he did not stand up against the mandate, he could not imagine himself standing in front of his medical ethics students, while teaching about integrity, trustworthiness, and moral courage.
“I don't think I would have woken up in the morning with a clear conscience,” he said.
Kheriaty is married and has five children, with the oldest in college, two in high school, and two in grade school. He told CNA he plans to go into private practice.
For those who are in a similar situation with their jobs, Kheriaty says it's important to explore the option of exemptions, understand the criteria, and seek legal counsel. He then says that trust in God and reliance on prayer is necessary to follow one’s conscience and discern God’s will.
“In his Providence, he will take care of you,” he said. “So some doors may close, but God can open other doors for you. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and all the rest will be added unto you.’”
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.