GOP leaders escalate battle against COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Republicans this week escalated their battle against the Biden administration over federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates this week, calling for the president to backtrack from the requirements that they consider unconstitutional violations of American rights.  

GOP officials in states including Florida, Alabama and Arizona took steps to push back on the looming requirement for businesses with more than 100 employees to require workers to be vaccinated or tested regularly.

Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisHaley hits the stump in South Carolina Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills A sad reality: In a season of giving, most will ignore America's poor MORE (R), who is considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, on Thursday requested a special session of the state legislature focused on combating the mandates after previously floating plans to sue the administration. 

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"In Florida, your right to earn a living is not contingent upon whatever choices you're making in terms of these injections," DeSantis said during a Thursday press conference.  

But White House health officials have consistently defended vaccine mandates as effective, touting a 20 percent increase in vaccination rates in companies and institutions requiring the shots.

Several public health experts have also framed mandates as the best approach to get more people vaccinated and get closer to the end of the pandemic. 

The ramped up debate comes as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule requested by the administration for all businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccination or regular testing is set to take effect.

Biden unveiled his plan last month to have the division of the Labor Department draft the requirement, and two of the biggest lobbying groups for corporate America — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable — said they were not against the rule. 

The administration previously declared that all federal employees and contractors had to be vaccinated.  

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Still, GOP officials have promised to dispute the vaccinate-or-test mandate. 

The same day DeSantis declared Florida state lawmakers need to return early to step in to “protect Florida jobs,” state House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R) and state Senate President Wilton Simposn (R) indicated in a joint statement that they will review the governor’s request “as well as discuss our own ideas for legislative action.”

“During the upcoming special session, our goal is to make our laws even more clear that Florida stands as refuge for families and businesses who want to live in freedom,” they wrote.

The Alabama GOP also asked its state legislature on Friday to “take action” against the vaccine requirements, with Chairman John Wahl calling them discriminatory and a “clear violation of citizens’ constitutional right to privacy.”

“The Biden Administration is out of control, and needs to be challenged on these unconstitutional and un-American mandates,” he said in a statement. “I want to see Alabama leading the charge to defend the rights and freedoms of our citizens. We need to protect both the people of Alabama and the businesses of Alabama from this forced Government discrimination.” 

Additionally, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R), who was the first to file a lawsuit against the administration for vaccine requirements, filed an amended version on Friday asking for a temporary restraining order and nationwide preliminary injunction to stop them from being implemented. 

Members of Congress also joined the opposition to federal vaccine requirements, with a group of Senate Republicans led by Sens. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGOP resistance to Biden FCC nominee could endanger board's Democratic majority Man charged with threatening Alaska senators pleads not guilty China conducts combat readiness drill after US congressional delegation arrives in Taiwan MORE (R-Alaska) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) sending a letter to Biden on Thursday citing “no precedent” for federal mandates.

Texas Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottHillicon Valley —TSA to strengthen rail sector cybersecurity When politics trump workers' health, we know who gets burned Judge blocks Texas social media censorship law MORE (R) also disputed the vaccination requirements through an executive order last week banning them by any “entity in Texas,” although a bill that would have prohibited employers from mandating vaccines failed in the state legislature earlier this week.     

The GOP’s vocal opposition also comes as the 2022 election inches closer, as Republicans hope to gain back the House and Senate and then the presidency in 2024. DeSantis and Abbott are both up for reelection in 2022.

Republicans make up a majority of unvaccinated Americans at 59 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor. 

The White House has condemned Republican governors against vaccine requirements for businesses, including Abbott and DeSantis, accusing them of “putting politics ahead of public health.”

White House spokesperson Kevin Munoz responded to DeSantis’s request for a special session with a tweet saying, “There are leaders who want to get the pandemic over with and then there’s this.”

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Federal health officials have repeatedly pointed to vaccination as the best protection against COVID-19, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers Overnight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Omicron sets off a flurry of responses CDC strengthens recommendation to say all adults should get booster shot MORE noting during a Friday briefing that more vaccinations will reduce transmission and help prevent new variants from emerging. Almost 64 million people remain unvaccinated, according to the agency's data.

In a briefing last week, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff ZientsJeff ZientsFirst US omicron case detected in California Obama visits vaccination site in DC US braces for omicron to hit MORE said more than 3,500 organizations have required vaccines and the unvaccinated population dropped by about one third since late July when Biden first unveiled vaccination rules for federal workers. 

Vaccine mandates are generally “effective” and “reliable” in boosting the public vaccination rate, Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina, said, noting “there’s only so much that talking and encouraging will do.” 

But he doesn’t think a population-wide mandate would work “at this particular time” because of how these requirements have become a “politicized issue” with people having “some very strong feelings.” 

“My opinion is that there has been a mild politicization of vaccine mandates for as long as I can remember, but this current form of the acceleration of that politicization is worrisome,” he said.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said she approves of the administration’s push for employer-based mandates because “frankly nothing else was working.”

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“They tried education, outreach, incentives and at this point this is a matter of safeguarding the public health,” she said.

There’s a misunderstanding among the public that vaccinations are an individual’s choice solely affecting their own health, Wen said, which is “just not true” since vaccinations also protect the people around that individual. 

“The reason we have vaccine requirements is not to make people do something that they don't want to do, but it's to protect other people who deserve, who need our help to safeguard their health and well-being,” she added.