Will Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate help the US beat Covid?

President getting both ‘praise and pushback’ over mandatory jabs

Joe Biden
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Joe Biden is facing the threat of legal challenges from Republicans after announcing tough new Covid-19 measures requiring almost 100 million Americans to either get vaccinated, face weekly testing or quit their jobs.

The US president is facing “widespread anger and pushback from many influential and powerful conservative figures” over the mandate, which covers 17 million health workers and more than 80 million staff at large businesses, said The Guardian. Several Republican governors have outlined plans to sue the Biden administration for “unconstitutional” overreach, the newspaper added.

And critics on both sides of the political divide are questioning whether Biden’s new “hard line” on vaccines, which “has dropped in an already politically fraught environment”, will help end the nation’s Covid pandemic.

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GOP fury

Announcing the mandate plan last Thursday, Biden told White House reporters that he had directed the US Department of Labor to require all private businesses with 100 or more staff to mandate the jab or request proof of a negative coronavirus test from employees at least once a week. In addition, large businesses must provide paid leave for employees and their families to receive their vaccine and recover from any side effects.

The vaccine mandate also applies to workers at hospitals and other healthcare settings who receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

Only people who cannot receive the jab for medical reasons are exempted, and religious opposition to vaccines is not considered a mitigating circumstance.

The new mandate has been rolled out amid “low rates of vaccination” across the US, where “some hospitals are straining under the pressure of the Delta variant” of the virus, said The Guardian.

According to latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 54% of the eligible population have been fully inoculated against Covid - a percentage that experts believe is well below the threshold required to stem the spread of infections.

“Biden’s move is aimed at the roughly 80 million Americans who are eligible but remain unvaccinated,” said The New York Times (NYT).

But while many Democrats have welcomed the “unprecedented” policy, “resistance to vaccine mandates, once a fringe position, has entered the Republican mainstream”, the NYT continued. GOP governors’ opposition reflects “the anger and fear about the vaccine among constituents now central to their base”.

Governor Greg Abbott of Texas accused the president of “a power grab”, while Henry McMaster of South Carolina promised to fight the mandate in court and to “the gates of hell”. Montana’s Governor Greg Gianforte called the mandate “unlawful and un-American”, and Kay Ivey of Alabama said it was “outrageous” and “overreaching”.

Meanwhile, Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi tweeted that the plan was “terrifying”, adding: “This is still America, and we still believe in freedom from tyrants.”

However, as The Guardian pointed out, the US “has a long history of mandating vaccines”.

But previous efforts to encourage vaccinations have been targeted at “government entities or on the state level”, the paper continued. Biden’s mandate, which has received both “praise and pushback”, is the first to extend “to so many Americans”.

All the same, legal scholars “say the mandate falls within the power of federal agencies”, The Guardian added.

Risky policy

As the row over mandatory jabs raged, Colorado’s Democratic Governor Jared Polis warned on Friday that the state currently has the lowest rate of availability in intensive care units (ICUs) “that we've had since the start of this crisis, in part due to the unvaccinated with Covid and just other types of trauma that goes up seasonally this time of year”.

Polis told CNN that hospitals are “reaching very close to their capacity limits”, warning: “That wouldn't be happening if people were vaccinated.”

While “the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on vaccine requirements”, said The Economist, “the mandate may spur more vaccinations whether or not it ultimately survives”.

“Some firms had already mandated vaccinations among their workers, but others may have held off out of concern about employee pushback,” added the paper, which predicted that “Biden’s move may yet yield results”.

That hope was underlined by Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, after Biden announced the plan last week. Jha told White House reporters that the mandate “will make a big difference”.

“If we did not really begin to implement these things - if we did not substantially ramp up vaccinations, make testing much more widely available - we’re looking at thousands of people dying every day for weeks and months on end,” Jha said.

Implementing the mandate now means the US “can look forward to a far better fall and winter this year than we had last year”, he continued, and then “we can look forward to a 2022 where we can spend days and even weeks, and not think about the pandemic”.

Jha has also played down suggestions that the mandate could provide Republicans with more ammunition to fire at Biden. The academic and health policy researcher told the NYT that “what the president does is he creates political cover for Republican leaders, who will scream loudly because it’s politically expedient”.

“I think many of them are actually feeling relieved, because now they don’t have to do the hard work of convincing their constituents,” Jha added.

However, even the president’s closest advisors have emphasised that the mandate is not a fix-all solution. Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN that it might require “many, many” more vaccine mandates to get the virus under control.

“I believe that's going to turn this around because I don't think people are going to want to not go to work or not go to college... They're going to do it,” he said. “You’d like to have them do it on a totally voluntary basis, but if that doesn't work, you've got to go to the alternatives.”

And if too many people remain unconvinced by encouragement from “trusted political messengers”, he added, further mandates could be on the agenda.

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