Even some of President Biden’s liberal supporters were surprised by his dramatic announcement last week that he was imposing a vaccination mandate on all federal government workers, and that he had ordered OSHA to require all larger private companies require that all 80 million of their employees be vaccinated or regularly tested for Covid to avoid $14,000 fines against their company for each incident of non-compliance.
As president, Biden clearly has the legal authority to impose a vaccine mandate on all 2.1 million federal workers, and, by extension, 17 million workers for medical facilities that accept payment from federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. But it is not at all clear that the president can order the federal OSHA workplace safety agency to require all mid-size and large private businesses in this country to impose vaccine mandates on their workers, and punish them for non-compliance with crippling fines.
But some observers suggest that politics played a greater role in Biden’s decision to impose a vaccine mandate than public health considerations.
Axios, a prominent liberal news outlet, was brutally frank about the motivation behind Biden’s announcement, calling it “a strategic effort, as he’s watched his own approval numbers slip underwater in the past month, to shift frustrations about climbing delta variant cases onto the millions who’ve either actively or passively rejected the shot and other precautions.”
Biden has made a political decision to attack the character of the 75 million vaccine resisters in this country in the same way that Hillary Clinton publicly demonized the “deplorable” Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential campaign. By doing so, Biden risks further alienating the large portion of those who refuse to take the vaccine who are black and Latino members of the working class, as well as unionized healthcare workers, which are core segments of the urban Democrat voter base.
BIDEN STOKES ANGER AT THE UNVACCINATED
Biden expressed his growing frustration with those who still resist taking the vaccine. He also expressed his “understanding” for the “anger at the unvaccinated,” and proposes to punish them by getting them fired from their jobs, denying them access to public places, and cutting them off from mainstream American life.
The president claimed he just couldn’t understand why so many Americans still refuse to take the vaccine. “What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see? We’ve made vaccinations free, safe, and convenient. The vaccine has [just received full] FDA approval. Over 200 million Americans have gotten at least one shot. . .
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Biden said, “and it’s caused by the fact that despite America having an unprecedented and successful vaccination program, despite the fact that for almost five months, free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot.”
He then became accusatory. “Our patience is wearing thin and your refusal [to be vaccinated] has cost all of us.”
Former US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who had publicly supported the administration’s former vaccination policies, was upset by the aggressive tone of Biden’s announcement. Adams said it was “delivered to leave you feeling angry if vaccinated, and ashamed if unvaccinated. It was a war speech, but the enemy wasn’t the virus — it was your neighbor.”
An Axios headline provocatively suggested that Biden’s vaccine mandate announcement had started “America’s Civil War of 2021.”
PICKING A FIGHT WITH REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS
Biden also accused Republican governors of endangering the public by pushing back at federal calls for a mandatory mask mandate in schools. “If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way,” Biden warned.
So far, the Republican-dominated legislatures or governors in eight states — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Texas, South Carolina, and South Dakota — have sought to prohibit private-sector vaccine mandates for employees, customers, or in some other respect. In reaction to Biden’s announcement of a federal vaccine mandate, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, Governor Henry McMasters of South Carolina, and Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota quickly threatened to file lawsuits to stop its implementation, overriding their state’s authority.
Biden’s vaccine mandate is a clear reversal of his prior position on the subject. In December 2020, when a reporter asked him about mandatory vaccinations, Biden responded, “No, I don’t think it should be mandatory. I wouldn’t demand [it] to be mandatory. But I would do everything in my power — just like I don’t think masks have to be made mandatory nationwide — I will do everything in my power as president of the United States to encourage people to do the right thing.”
When Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, was asked the same question at the end of July 2021, her answer maintained the same approach. “That’s not the role of the federal government,” Psaki replied. “That is the role that institutions, private sector entities, and others may take. That certainly is appropriate.”
Similarly, on July 30, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky flatly declared, “there will be no federal mandate.”
Not surprisingly, a number of Republican governors were quick to reject Biden’s vaccine mandate as an overreaction to the Covid threat.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson called it “an impulsive reaction by the president to the current surge” that is likely to fail because “the more the government pushes, there’s a temptation for people to resist.”
Montana Governor Greg Gianforte called Biden’s vaccine mandate “first unlawful, and second un-American. . . We are already having enough trouble getting people back to work, and here is one more thing that makes it harder.”
OVERSIMPLIFYING THE HEALTH ISSUE
Biden has offered the American people a vastly oversimplified view of the current nature of the Covid threat. Biden defines those who have taken the vaccine as “good,” even though he is still subjecting them to many of the same mask mandates and other restrictions as the unvaccinated, whom he defines as “bad” for irresponsibly threatening their own health and exposing the “good” vaccinated people to the risk of a “breakthrough” infection.
Biden’s depiction of Covid is also scientifically inaccurate on several major points. First, even though there has been a significant increase in the number of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated due to the delta variant, the vast majority of those people are not getting seriously ill. The recent data indicates that the small percentage of vaccinated people who do get infected face only one-tenth the chance of being hospitalized or dying due the virus than unvaccinated people who come down with Covid.
While there is evidence from data collected in Israel that a booster shot may be required six months after vaccination to maintain a high level of protection against infection, most vaccinated people will not get seriously ill even without the booster shot.
This highlights another basic fallacy in the Biden approach to dealing with the pandemic — that it is possible to reduce the rate of new infections all the way to zero. No vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infections, although the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have come surprisingly close to that ideal. The real world goal for most vaccines, like the vaccine for the common seasonal flu, is to significantly reduce the percentage of people who do get infected and reduce the severity of their illness to a tolerable level.
When the coronvirus first arrived in early 2020 and threatened to overwhelm the hospitals in the New York City area with critically ill patients, public health officials imposed lockdowns and other infection mitigation procedures that were always intended to be temporary. Their goal was to “flatten the curve” of new Covid infections so that hospitals and their staff would be able to continue to function and meet the health needs of their patients.
THE COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS HAS CHANGED
During the early stages of the pandemic, before an effective vaccine and medical treatments for Covid were available, it made sense for government and public health officials to do almost everything possible to reduce the risk of infection — including school closures and business lockdowns — even though they inflicted significant harm upon students and the economy.
Today, that cost-benefit analysis has changed. It is now reasonable to ask whether the actual infection risk from the virus to young children is greater than the educational and developmental harm inflicted by keeping them out of their classrooms for an entire school year.
Similarly, if a vaccinated person who suffers a breakthrough Covid infection is unlikely to become more ill than if they had come down with a case of the common cold, does it make sense for President Biden to institute drastic mandatory measures to isolate them from potential exposure in the workplace to the 75 million people who are unvaccinated?
WHAT ABOUT NATURAL IMMUNITY?
There is yet another recent scientific finding that is relevant to this question. Last week, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, issued the findings of a December 2020 study his agency financed. It estimated that at least 100 million Americans had been infected by Covid, five times the official count of reported cases at the time. Today, nine months later, it is likely that there are as many as 150 million formerly infected Americans, each of whom now has at least some naturally-produced protective antibodies to the virus in their bloodstream.
Statistically, they probably include about a third of the 75 million Americans who have refused to take the vaccine, and probably don’t need to because they are protected from further infection by their natural antibodies. Doctors and nurses also comprise a large percentage of those who have refused to take the vaccine, precisely because so many of them have already had the virus and know they possess natural immunity.
In Biden’s speech last week announcing vaccination mandates for all federal workers and workers in businesses with more than 100 employees, he made no mention of an exemption from the mandate for those who have recovered from Covid, or who can prove through a blood test that they have natural antibodies to the virus in their blood. Even though they pose little or no risk of infecting others, under Biden’s rules, they too would be subject to losing their jobs if they refuse to take a vaccine that they most probably don’t need.
ISRAEL SETS THE EXAMPLE
By contrast, in Israel, in addition to those who have been vaccinated, those who have recovered from Covid may receive a government-issued “green pass,” which permits them to be present at indoor events with many other people.
Israeli researchers have provided most of the best data on the effectiveness of the current vaccines, the utility of booster shots, and the level of protection conferred by naturally-produced antibodies. On August 25, Israel published the most extensive and rigorous scientific study on natural immunity to the virus to date, based on data from more than 700,000 people. It found that natural immunity was 27 times more effective than vaccines in preventing people from developing symptoms due to a Covid infection.
Curiously, the CDC has been largely silent on the question of natural immunity. Last month, it published one limited study on the subject based upon two months of data from cases in Kentucky. It reported that vaccine immunity is 2.3 times better than natural immunity.
ARE THE CDC’S FINDINGS POLITICALLY BIASED?
However, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an expert on public health policy, wrote that he suspects the CDC deliberately cherry-picked the limited Kentucky data rather than the available data from all 50 states so that its conclusions would fit the Biden administration’s narrative about the superior effectiveness of vaccinations. According to Makary, the Biden administration may not want the CDC to recognize the effectiveness of natural immunity, for fear that those who have it will then be able to use it as a justification for continuing to refuse the vaccine.
According to Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins, recognition of the value of natural immunity as a substitute for vaccination would vastly complicate President Biden’s strategy. By announcing his vaccine mandate, Biden is trying to shift the political blame for growing public frustration with the lingering Covid threat from his administration’s muddled messaging to those evil, stupid people who still refuse to get vaccinated — and whom Biden and his supporters suggest are mostly Trump supporters.
Jenkins argues that the cynical goal of Biden’s vaccine mandate is to lump all his Republican opponents — including red-state governors and libertarians defending the personal liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights — with the anti-vaccine extremists who present a menace to public health in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
PART OF A LARGER CULTURAL WAR
Beyond the specifics of the public health issue, the controversy over Biden’s effort to impose a federal vaccination mandate is the latest example of the cultural war of clashing values and priorities between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives support reducing government interference in the daily lives of individual citizens to the bare minimum required for public safety. Liberals believe that government has the responsibility to pass rules and regulations which result in the best for society as a whole, even if they wind up impinging on the personal Constitutional rights of the individual.
In this case, Biden’s decision to use the power of the federal government to coerce workers into taking the Covid vaccine against their will seems to contradict strong liberal support for the controversial 1970 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that people have a right to decide what to do with their body.
Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah said that by “coercing private citizens to undergo a medical procedure,” the president “has shown a wanton disregard for the US Constitution. . . As a would-be autocrat, Biden endangers the very fibers of this great nation. Freedom and agency are the hallmarks of the American experiment.”
Biden explicitly rejected Senator Lee’s argument when he announced the vaccine mandate. “This is not about freedom or personal choice,” the president said. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you — the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love. The bottom line: We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated coworkers.”
DO VACCINES PROTECT YOU OR NOT?
But earlier in the same speech, Biden said, “as the science makes clear, if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re highly protected from severe illness, even if you get Covid-19.” If that is true, then why do vaccinated workers need the protection that Biden has promised them from the vaccine mandate?
Critics of Biden’s vaccine mandate also say it is also certain to have a negative impact on the American economy. It will effectively reduce the available labor force by disqualifying tens of millions of unvaccinated workers from available jobs in industries and businesses that are subject to the mandate. The ripple effects from the added labor shortage will do further damage to already disrupted supply chains, the tight housing sector, and create more delays in the trucking industry.
When the economy slows as a result, Biden will then try to pin political blame for it on the unvaccinated, too.
Biden’s new vaccine mandate is also selective, reflecting other partisan political considerations. While he insists that all workers for the federal government must be vaccinated, he has made no such demand on the hundreds of thousands of immigrants being allowed to cross the Mexican border into the US each month. According to Axios, 30% of the illegal migrants in custody have refused the vaccine. Yet the Biden administration is still shipping them into communities across the United States, where they are likely to start new Covid outbreaks.
THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC HEALTH
The government’s handling of the pandemic has always been a politically charged issue. The angry debate over Biden’s vaccine mandate is only the latest round in the ongoing controversy which also reflects clashing cultural values on a more fundamental level.
Unfortunately, along the way, the relevant medical science and public health policies have also become distorted by the partisan politics, making it difficult for government leaders to fashion a coherent and unified approach to dealing with the pandemic.