delta variant

Vaccine Mandates Finally Have Some Momentum

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

With the Delta variant causing deaths and hospitalizations to spike in unvaccinated regions of the United States, there has been a renewed effort, joined by some unlikely voices, to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. Amid this push — and fear of the Delta wave — the messaging appears to be having some effect. After stalling out for months, vaccination rates have gone up in several states hit hard by the virus in July. Throughout the U.S., almost 780,000 shots were administered on Sunday, up over 200,000 from the seven-day average just a week before. And with Delta threatening to launch yet another wave of cases this fall, some state and local governments, private employers, and at least one federal agency are now finally doing more to mandate their own firewalls of vaccination.

Just as one of the first real jolts of the pandemic began in the sports world, the momentum for vaccine mandates picked up with the NFL’s announcement last week that teams would face severe penalties for failing to vaccinate their players — including the forfeiture of games if a club experiences an outbreak among players who have not gotten the shot. Then on Monday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all 340,000 municipal employees in the city must either be vaccinated or test negative for COVID on a weekly basis or more by the time schools open in mid-September. (That workforce includes the New York Police Department, which reported last week that it had administered shots to just 43 percent of its service members.) California, where 75 percent of eligible residents are vaccinated, also announced Monday that all public and private health-care workers and 246,000 state employees will need to show proof of vaccination or test negative weekly beginning next month. Los Angeles is also reportedly expected to institute a requirement on Wednesday for city workers to sign up for vaccination or get tested on a weekly basis.

These programs are clearly designed to drive more employees toward vaccination, while also offering a less convenient alternative of frequent testing. Adopting a hard vaccine mandate, on the other hand, remains a difficult proposition in the United States. Because COVID vaccines are still only approved by the Food and Drug Administration under emergency use authorization, it is difficult for state governments and private businesses to require their employees get vaccinated. As STAT News noted earlier this year, the “same section of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that authorizes the FDA to grant emergency use authorization also requires the secretary of Health and Human Services to ‘ensure that individuals to whom the product is administered are informed … of the option to accept or refuse administration of the product.’” Full FDA approval of America’s three COVID vaccines may still be months away. Nevertheless, federal courts have recently upheld some employers’ decisions to require shots, including a federal judge in Texas dismissing a lawsuit from Houston Methodist Hospital employees fighting a vaccine mandate, and a federal judge in Indiana ruling that Indiana University could require students coming back to campus in the fall to get vaccinated.

Though the Biden administration has been hesitant to use executive authority to require vaccinations — including the power to require members of the military to get the shot — the Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday became the first federal agency to require many of its employees to get vaccinated. Over the next two months, the VA’s 115,000 frontline health-care providers must show proof of vaccination; unlike in New York City and California, employees cannot opt out with weekly tests. Biden, too, is coming around. According to the Washington Post, the president intends to announce that all 2.1 million federal employees must get vaccinated or undergo frequent testing.

With vaccination by far the most effective tool to end the pandemic, it’s unlikely that this mandate momentum will stop any time soon. Also on Monday, close to 60 medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association, issued a joint statement promoting mandatory vaccination of health-care workers, describing such an action as the “logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment” of the profession.

Vaccine Mandates Finally Have Some Momentum