OCR Resolves Complaint After Hospital Accommodates Medical Student’s Religious Needs During COVID-19

Today, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is announcing the resolution of a complaint against Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) in New York City after SIUH accommodated the needs for a medical student to keep a beard according to his faith while using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

OCR enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, religion and the exercise of conscience, including religious nondiscrimination provisions in various block grant authorizing statutes.

In June 2020, OCR’s Conscience and Religious Freedom Division (CRFD) received a complaint from representatives of a civil rights organization regarding a medical student who was participating in rotations at the Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) in New York City. 

In response to COVID-19, SIUH temporarily suspended medical student rotations at the hospital.  As a condition of their return, SIUH required students to fit-test and then wear N95 respirator masks while serving patients and informed the student that he would need to shave his beard.  The student does not shave his beard in accordance with the tenets of his religion.  In an N95 respirator fit-test prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the complainant passed the test using a beard gown underneath the N95 respirator. Nevertheless, SIUH advised the complainant that he must take another fit test and shave before being allowed to return.

The student advised SIUH personnel of his inability to shave his beard because of his religious beliefs, claimed he was not initially accommodated by SIUH, and feared the matter would impede his ability to complete his studies and become a doctor.

After OCR communicated with the student and provided technical assistance to SIUH, SIUH granted the student’s accommodation request and provided an alternative form of PPE called a Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) which provides greater protection than an N95 mask and would allow for a facial beard. As a result, OCR is closing the complaint as satisfactorily resolved.

This is the second religious freedom resolution facilitated by OCR during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roger Severino, Director of OCR said, “Accommodations like these avoid forcing people to choose between following their profession or following their faith.  Religious freedom and patient safety should both be preserved, even and especially during times of crisis.”

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For more information about how OCR is protecting civil rights during COVID-19, please visit  https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-providers/civil-rights-covid19/index.html.

For more information related to HIPAA and COVID-19, please visit: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/special-topics/hipaa-covid19/index.html.

To learn more about non-discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, and disability; conscience and religious freedom; and health information privacy laws, and to file a complaint with OCR, please visit www.hhs.gov/ocr.

Follow OCR on Twitter at @HHSOCR.