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As more and more health care systems across parts of the U.S. push up against一or beyond一their capacity amid widely circulating COVID-19 infections, questions about how hospitals can continue to care for patients have taken dire form.

Hospitals are now filled to the brim with unvaccinated patients. Concerns over how best to ration care for scores of sick have prompted conversations about how to prioritize available beds and resources, should things get even worse, and how to continue persuading the pool of unvaccinated to get jabbed amid a widening emotional toll on hospital workers.

And as more health care workers share their testimony from the bedsides of the sick, growing frustration over the sheer number of unvaccinated patients taking up beds has some wondering: Can doctors refuse to treat, or decline to see, patients who are unvaccinated?

In the case of COVID-19 patients in need of critical care, not only would refusing to administer treatment be highly unethical, it would violate a physician’s duty of care, which can carry legal implications, say several Northeastern experts.

“As an emergency department doctor, you treat who is in front of you,” says Robert Baginski, associate clinical professor and program director of the physician assistant program at Northeastern. “To do so is a legal obligation, and their vaccination status doesn’t change that.”

According to federal law, under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, any patient who is hospitalized needing emergency care must be treated regardless of the circumstances, including that person’s insurance status or ability to pay. Providers can be fined and even prosecuted for violations of the statute.

But when it comes to non-emergency situations, doctors are legally able to refuse patients for a variety of reasons, provided they are not doing so because of some aspect of the patient’s race, gender/sexuality, or religion, says Timothy Hoff, professor of management, healthcare systems, and health policy at Northeastern.