President Biden’s six-point plan to fight the Delta variant, including executive orders that will mandate COVID-19 vaccines for most workers in America, is bold, audacious, and unprecedented.
For months, the president used his bully pulpit to urge mandates. Many businesses and universities did so, but in eleven states, governors blocked mandates. He pleaded for healthcare professionals – pediatricians, and family physicians – to strive to get all their patients vaccinated in the next two weeks. He had to act decisively.
And now he has, with the most important public health stand of his administration. Even more important, it will boost vaccine coverage so high that we may finally be able to contain this virus. And he has the full legal power to do it.
Here’s what’s new. His plan will push 80 million currently reluctant Americans to vaccinate. The US Department of Labor will issue new rules to require employees in all businesses that employ more than 100 persons to either get vaccinated or subject themselves to weekly SARS-CoV-2 tests. All workers in healthcare settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding must be vaccinated, without exception. All federal employees and contractors must be vaccinated, with weekly antibody tests no longer an acceptable substitute. Employers will also be required to grant paid leaves for everyone who takes time off to get vaccinated.
The president has undoubted power to require vaccines for federal workers and contractors. He can also withhold Medicare and Medicaid funding if hospitals and clinics refuse to mandate vaccines. Most importantly, he has the power to reach deep into the private sector and require businesses to vaccinate their employees. Congress passed the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970 to address the patchwork of state worker safety laws, giving the Department of Labor ample power to set workplace health and safety standards. And preventing a potentially deadly infectious disease is just as important to worker safety as preventing workplace injuries.
Subject to public health agency clearance, the FDA will authorize, and the CDC will recommend, booster shots for all eligible Americans. And Biden promised there will be enough doses ready, for free, for all Americans. (Let’s also hope he will ramp up supplies to help vaccinate the world).
To inspire confidence in our schools, all children over age 12 should be vaccinated, as should their parents. All educators should be vaccinated, while the federally paid Head Start educators -- nearly 300,000 in all -- must be vaccinated. Just after Biden’s announcement, the Los Angeles Unified School District became the first in the country to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for students 12 years of age or older as a condition of public school entry. Remarkable!
Biden will ask governors for their support, but the Department of Education will make new funds available to pay educators’ salaries in states that withhold pay from employees of school systems that defy anti-masking or anti-vaccination policies. In other words, he will keep our kids safe even if governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott won’t.
Testing and masking capacity will be greatly increased, small businesses that are harmed by the latest resurgence of COVID-19 will be eligible for $2 billion in funds to protect economic recovery. More personnel, civilian and military, will be made available to improve care of patients as well as to extend vaccine access. Pharmacists will receive new powers to prescribe and administer vaccines.
And finally, for those who still get COVID, free monoclonal antibody treatment will be available. At last, cutting-edge treatments won’t be reserved only for the rich and powerful.
While Medicare and Medicaid funding will be used to leverage vaccination of healthcare workers, Medicare rules should also be relaxed to provide additional funds to support the healthcare professional’s role as vaccine educators. The overwhelming evidence shows that most unvaccinated Americans would roll up their sleeves on the advice of their family doctors. New York City is offering reimbursement to health care providers for vaccine counseling in their practice. There is nothing to stop the Biden administration from doing that nationwide.
Biden has delivered a roadmap that could lead us out of the woods and finally put us on the right path to a safer, more normal life. Only time will tell if it is sufficient to turn the misinformation tide that has made it so difficult to get ahead of this pandemic but his executive orders could be a turning point in America.