Biden walks fine line on vaccine mandates

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The Biden administration is walking a fine line on vaccine requirements, as it encourages employers to mandate shots for their workers but stops short of promoting other measures.

The White House, in an effort to boost a vaccination rate that has slowed from its April peak, has praised businesses that are mandating vaccinations for employees. Those steps in the private sector largely followed President Biden’s requirement last month that federal workers get vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

But there are several far-reaching measures Biden could impose — and that some experts are calling for. So far, the president has decided against implementing the kind of requirements implemented by U.S. allies.

For example, Canada on Friday announced it would require all airline passengers to be vaccinated, as well travelers on interprovincial trains and cruise ships — steps the U.S. has not taken, though a mask mandate remains in place for interstate travel.

In the U.S., New York and San Francisco are now requiring people to be vaccinated if they want to eat at indoor restaurants or go to the gym.

But the Biden administration has stopped short of a full-throated call for other cities or states to follow, and has also repeatedly declined to get involved in setting up a vaccine verification process or “passport” system that would allow businesses to quickly check a customer’s vaccination status.

Expanding vaccination requirements would undoubtedly provoke resistance from some Republicans, who have pushed back on the idea of vaccine passports and argued that vaccinations should be a choice, not a requirement.

“I think he’s leaving a lot of effective tools on the table,” Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, said of Biden, while giving him “high marks” for his actions on vaccines for federal workers.

“Their hesitation has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with politics,” he added. “He’s worried about a backlash.”

Asked about White House efforts on vaccine requirements, a White House official said: “We’re continuing to look into more and more ways that we can push for more vaccinations, and that’s going to include carrots and sticks.”

By letting businesses take the lead on vaccine mandates, the administration is able to insulate itself to some extent from any political opposition.

But as the delta variant causes a surge in new cases and hospitalizations, primarily among the unvaccinated, some experts are calling for expanding vaccine mandates to get more shots in arms.

“The only way to get through a pandemic eventually is to develop high immunity to the virus across the population,” Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, wrote in an email.

“We have safe and effective vaccines that help us do this without developing disease freely available in this country. I think vaccine passports (what San Francisco is doing to enter restaurants or other establishments) is a prudent idea as it will increase vaccination rates.”

France saw a surge in vaccinations after President Emmanuel Macron announced in July that vaccination would be required for everyday activities like going to a restaurant or cafe.

The White House, though, has stopped short of fully calling for more cities to emulate San Francisco and New York.

Asked about New York’s efforts, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this month that local efforts around vaccines would vary from “community to community.”

From Gostin’s perspective, that means the U.S. is left with a “hodgepodge of different methods,” including simply using the paper card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is “easily forged.”

“I think that if he made a major announcement that he was going to create these proof of vaccination systems and encourage their use by cities, states and businesses, that would have a big impact,” Gostin said.

Republican governors including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have signed laws prohibiting vaccine passports. Biden has clashed with both governors, but the focus has been more on their efforts to prevent school districts from requiring masks.

“Texas is open 100 percent, and we want to make sure that you have the freedom to go where you want, without limits,” Abbott said in June while signing a bill to prevent vaccine passports.

Some experts are also calling on Biden to impose new air travel requirements, much like Canada’s new policy.

“A no-fly list for unvaccinated adults is an obvious step that the federal government should take,” Juliette Kayyem, a former Obama administration homeland security official who’s now at Harvard’s Kennedy School, wrote in The Atlantic this month.

“It will help limit the risk of transmission at destinations where unvaccinated people travel—and, by setting norms that restrict certain privileges to vaccinated people, will also help raise the stagnant vaccination rates that are keeping both the economy and society from fully recovering.”

The White House has praised employers mandating vaccines for their workers, and Biden met with some of those businesses last week.

“Here’s the bottom line: Through vaccination requirements, employers have the power to help end the pandemic,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said last week.

When asked last week whether it was “the president’s official position that all companies in the private sector should have vaccine mandates for their employees,” Psaki demurred, saying instead that companies should “take a look” at options.

“The president’s position is that every company should take a look at how to protect their workforce and that there are going to be different carrots and sticks that can be used by different private sector entities,” she said.

Tags Canada Coronavirus COVID-19 vaccine Emmanuel Macron Jeff Zients Jen Psaki Joe Biden New York City Pandemic Ron DeSantis San Francisco vaccine mandates

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