President Biden July 29 announced a coronavirus vaccine mandate for all Federal employees, two days after telling reporters, "If you're not vaccinated, you're not nearly as smart as I thought you were."
During a late-afternoon announcement at the White House, he said all Federal workers who were not vaccinated would be tested at least once a week for the coronavirus and would not be able to travel for work. They will also be required to wear masks at all times on the job, something that will also apply to visitors to Federal buildings.
The President said similar strictures would be applied to Federal contractors and their employees.
Mandatory for Military
He said he had asked the U.S. Defense Department to add vaccinations for the virus to the regimen of inoculations required for all military personnel.
Trying to dispel fears of some Americans that because development of the vaccine was accelerated last year, it might not be safe--a concern heightened by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration not having given final approval to any of the three vaccines in use, Mr. Biden noted that it had been developed under a Republican President, was now being distributed under a Democratic one, and had been carefully monitored by the Federal Government's top scientist.
"The vaccines are safe, highly effective," he said. "There's nothing political about them. This is not about red and blue. This is about life and death."
He also said he was authorizing all employers to use Federal funds to pay workers $100 to get vaccinated--an incentive first used by Kroger's six months ago and proposed by Mayor de Blasio July 28--and grant their employees paid time off to be inoculated.
His announcement came three days after recent outbreaks sparked by the Delta variant among employees at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health-care facilities in Little Rock, Baltimore, Orlando and Chicago that left them scrambling for staff prompted the agency to mandate vaccinations for all of its 115,000 health-care workers nationwide.
'Best Way to Save Vets'
"I am doing this because it's the best way to keep our veterans safe, full stop," Denis McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, told the New York Times July 26.
Mr. McDonough targeted the requirement to clinical staff like doctors, dentists, registered nurses, physician assistants and other specialists who were "the most patient-facing," the newspaper reported. They will have eight week from July 28 to get "fully vaccinated or face penalties including possible removal," the Times reported.
The push for a mandate got a major boost from the labor movement that went beyond Federal employees when AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told a viewer on C-SPAN July 27 that he supported vaccine mandates in the workplace, particularly as many employees return to their job locations after extended periods of working from home.
"If you come back and you're not vaccinated, everybody in that workplace is jeopardized...if we don't know if you're vaccinated or not, we can't make the proper accommodations to make sure that you are protected and everyone else is protected."
Largest System in U.S.
The VA is the largest integrated health-care system in the United States, with close to 1,300 facilities, including 171 VA Medical Centers serving over nine million veterans. It has reported that 146 agency employees and 1,679 veterans being treated in its facilities have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents most VA workers, opted to withhold comment about the new requirement but has aggressively advocated that all of its members get vaccinated.
"Government workers have been serving on the front lines of this COVID-19 pandemic since the spring of 2020," said Dr. Everett Kelley, AFGE president, in an infomercial displayed prominently on the union's website. "Unfortunately, in that time we lost hundreds of members of AFGE to this awful disease. That's why it is so important that we all take this opportunity to get vaccinated."
In May 2020, he told this newspaper that the Trump Administration's attempts to limit unions' presence in Federal agencies inadvertently helped to spread the virus, explaining, "This administration had taken away the ability of management and the union to work together to resolve issues. And I believe that if that had not happened, we would not have seen the extreme spread of this infection."
Fresh Air Returns
The AFGE National VA Council and the VA recently reached what the union hailed as an "historic settlement to restore workplace rights and overturn anti-worker policies implemented by the Trump administration during the past four years. The July 20 settlement also resolves pending litigation and outlines the parameters for the upcoming negotiations of the new collective-bargaining agreement--the largest union contract in the Federal Government."
NVAC President Alma Lee said, "We're essentially creating a clean slate for future negotiations between the VA and AFGE, restoring Title 38 official time, and remedying the damage done by the Trump Executive Orders" that permitted the repeal of contracts and limited the work of union representatives on Federal property.
Pressure to address widespread vaccine hesitancy among the nation's health care workforce has continued to build since March, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented a COVID outbreak in a nursing home in Kentucky sparked by the infection of an unvaccinated staff member who had a more-contagious form of the virus.
Three residents, one of whom had been vaccinated, died, and 26 were infected, as were 20 staff members. While 90 percent of the residents were vaccinated, just 53 percent of the staff were, according to Kentucky health officials.
The VA's move to a vaccine mandate coincided with a joint statement from the nation's 50 most-influential medical associations including the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians and the American Public Health Association.
'Put Patients, Residents First'
"Our health care organizations and societies advocate that all health care and long-term care employers require their workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine," the group said. "This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health-care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being...Vaccination is the primary way to put the pandemic behind us and avoid the return of stringent public health measures."
On July 27, Dr. Susan Bailey, the former president of the AMA, told MSNBC that a once-a-week testing option being offered by the the de Blasio administration to those who didn't want to be vaccinated was insufficient to counter the Delta surge.
During Mayor de Blasio's July 26 briefing announcing expansion of its vaccine-and-testing program to all city workers, Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi told reporters that the more people remaining unvaccinated, the likelier it was that the virus would continue to spread, and that new variants would emerge.
Months ago, several health-care and long-term-care companies instituted vaccine mandates which sparked lawsuits from employees claiming their employers could not mandate as a condition of employment that they take a vaccine which was still being offered under the Emergency Use Authorization of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Employers Winning Early
In the initial round of court proceedings, the employers have been prevailing. A legal challenge to the Houston Methodist Hospital's mandate, the workers contended the hospital was "illegally requiring its employees to be injected with an experimental vaccine as a condition of employment," and said the requirement ran afoul of the Nuremberg Code, a medical ethics code that emerged from the trials of Nazi war criminals.
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes rejected the analogy, asserting that a health-care worker "can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else. If a worker refuses an assignment, changed office, earlier start time, or other directive, he may be properly fired. Every employment includes limits on the worker's behavior in exchange for remuneration. That is all part of the bargain."
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