On Thursday, officials reported 3,300 COVID-19 deaths in the United States, a gut-wrenching and almost inexplicable figure. For months, highly effective vaccines that can greatly reduce the chance of hospitalization and death have been widely available, yet only 54 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. It’s a discouraging state of affairs that reflects widespread ideological resistance to vaccines, or even to the idea that the pandemic is still an ongoing problem. After month upon month of public health officials offering cash prizes and deploying celebrity vaccine ads to encourage vaccination, President Joe Biden said Thursday that the country was losing patience with the unvaccinated and announced a plan to use the powers of the federal government to force a broad swath of the country to get its shots.
As Benjamin Neuman, a Texas A&M virologist, said in an interview before Biden’s announcement, whether the world gets out of a seemingly interminable cycle of COVID-19 surges depends on whether countries can reach a higher rate of vaccinations. “Right now we are treating vaccination as kind of a weird lifestyle choice that people can make,” Neuman said. To deal with the pandemic, countries will have to begin compelling vaccination. “That’s probably where this has to go, in order for us to get out of COVID. The question is: Is the political will going to be there? It’s not really a question of science. It’s a question of delivery and public relations.”
Apparently, the political will does exist. Biden’s new policies include a requirement that health-care workers at most facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid be vaccinated; an order that companies with 100 or more employees require vaccinations or weekly COVID-19 testing; and a mandate that federal employees be vaccinated. Biden said the employer mandate alone, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will craft, could affect 80 million workers.
Facing sinking poll numbers amid a chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, disappointing job growth, and the delta variant surge, Biden seemed to embrace a “go big or go home” ethos, and his announcement fomented an immediate and intense backlash. One Republican candidate for US Senate, former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel parked in front of a Trump campaign sign to urge resistance to Biden’s policy, telling his followers on Twitter, “when the Gestapo shows up at your front door, you know what to do.” Republican governors, meanwhile, threatened to sue.
Do NOT comply with the tyranny.
When the gestapo show up at your front door, you know what to do. pic.twitter.com/hLJbcx4ace
— Josh Mandel (@JoshMandelOhio) September 10, 2021
This action by President Biden is blatantly unlawful, and Georgia will not stand for it. https://t.co/tPLLuHqivR
— Brian Kemp (@BrianKempGA) September 10, 2021
A wide variety of legal experts—citing a long history of Supreme Court rulings upholding the government’s ability to order mandatory vaccinations—said those challenges would face an uphill battle. “Yes, this is constitutional,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a famous legal scholar and dean at the UC Berkeley School of Law told the legal publication Law & Crime: “The government could require everyone to be vaccinated against COVID.”
The administration said the rule spelling out the details of the mandate will be published within the coming weeks, according to Bloomberg Law.
Despite the seeming boldness of Biden’s plan, some argued he hadn’t gone far enough. Given the federal government’s ability to impose mask mandates at airports and other transit centers, the president could have required proof of vaccination to travel, Leana S. Wen, a Washington Post columnist and former Baltimore health commissioner, wrote: “President Biden’s much-hyped new strategy for fighting covid-19 is a tepid half-measure that falls short of the dramatic reset the country needs.”
Biden’s announcement may help end the long-running COVID-19 public health crisis: Vaccines will keep people, at least a vast majority of them, out of the hospital, and the morgue. With Republican politicians invoking the Nazis or calling Biden a dictator, the political battle, though, will keep raging.
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