Faced with a surge of delta-variant COVID-19 cases, especially in areas with low vaccination rates, President Joe Biden spoke and moved with great clarity of purpose in mandating vaccines for federal employees and contractors, and imposing a vaccination-or-testing requirement on employers with staffs of 100 or more. The nation is in near-crisis as we try to avoid a return to packed ICUs and closed businesses. The intransigence of the ill-informed or simply stubborn cannot be allowed to override the actions of those doing the right thing.
We can mask and distance socially, but the best way to contain this very transmissible variant of the novel coronavirus — which is feeling not so novel after more than a year and a half of death and disruption — is for very large numbers of people to be vaccinated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given final approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 and older, meaning a high level of evidence has been shown for its safety and effectiveness. The “it’s an experimental drug” argument — which was never really accurate — has disappeared. The store is out of available excuses.
FDA approval did actually convince a significant number of Americans, and also made businesses feel freer to impose their own mandates. But it’s not enough. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63% of Americans eligible for their shots have been fully vaccinated. That includes kids 12 to 15, who can be inoculated under emergency use authorization rules. The FDA is waiting for more information to give final approval for this group, as well as some kind of authorization for younger children.
When those too young to be vaccinated are factored in, only slightly more than half of the country is shielded.
The final FDA approval also removes the barrier to broad vaccine mandates. Under emergency use authorization, people in many circumstances have a right to refuse a pharmaceutical. With final approval, it’s time for the rules to toughen up.
With a disease this contagious, and outcomes potentially so dire, vaccination is not a matter of personal preference. It is a public health imperative, a matter of protecting not just ourselves but also those around us who might have physical conditions that preclude vaccination or, because of severely compromised immune systems, might not get the same levels of protection from the shots. For that matter, it also protects the public at large by keeping emergency rooms and intensive care units from being so overwhelmed by serious cases among the unvaccinated that they must turn away patients with other urgent medical needs that require attention.
The American public might not be used to the tougher President Biden who emerged late last week and announced, “Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated, even though the vaccine is safe, effective and free.” We sure are.
It was time for kindly Uncle Joe to stand down and for the president to be the brisk and businesslike national leader we need. Using the clout of federal funding and labor laws that protect the safety of workers, Biden instituted rules that could mean 100 million more people become vaccinated.
Federal employees and contractors will have about 75 days to become fully vaccinated, and the effect should be noticeable quickly and perhaps dramatically. The test-or-vaccinate rule for private employers is expected to take a little longer to go into effect and may not work out quite that perfectly, at least not at the beginning. Expect a certain amount of vaccine-certification forgery to take place. And the U.S. Labor Department is already shorthanded and lacks the workforce to check on all those companies.
But, especially in places where backward governors have made it hard to mandate real protections against COVID-19, this order provides cover for employers who want their employees vaccinated but feel their states would make trouble for them or that workers would rebel. Over time, employees who would rather get tested than vaccinated may prefer two jabs in the arm over endless weekly swabs up into the nostrils. Employers who don’t want to pay for the tests might go for simple vaccine mandates of their own or push the expense of testing onto employees, who might find free vaccination a happier alternative.
While Biden was laying down the law on vaccination last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District was making its own bold move — becoming the first large school district in the nation to mandate that students be vaccinated. There’s already a requirement for staff.
As much as we’d like to see every eligible student get vaccinated, in this case L.A. Unified took things a little too far. It is requiring the shots not just for students 16 and older, for whom there’s full FDA approval, but also for those 12 to 15 years old, who are allowed and encouraged to be vaccinated but only under emergency use authorization.
They should retain the right to refuse the jab; they’re not employees who sign on to work with a business that requires vaccination but students in a compulsory education system.
The FDA specifically left the younger age group out of its full approval while awaiting more data. The district should wait, too, while continuing to urge vaccination for younger adolescents.