Omicron puts pinch on Biden vaccine mandate efforts

The rapidly spreading omicron variant poses a problem for the White House as officials try to convince a skeptical public that vaccine mandates are necessary. 

Opponents of mandates are seizing on early evidence that shows vaccines are not as effective at stopping transmission of the new strain, which they say undermines the administration's key arguments for championing them. 

This week, airlines were forced to cancel thousands of flights as COVID-19 swept through its flight crews and other employees.

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Many U.S. airlines require their employees to be fully vaccinated, and anti-mandate groups claimed that hundreds of otherwise-healthy crew members were sidelined, unable to help alleviate the worst of the shortages because of their vaccination status. 

Administration officials have cast vaccine mandates for health workers, and mandate-or-test requirements for large employers, as essential tools to get more people vaccinated.  

While vaccines don’t necessarily keep someone from getting COVID-19, they greatly reduce the chances of hospitalization or death. If the mandates result in more people getting vaccinated, it could also reduce stress on the nation’s healthcare system if waves of people do get infected.

More than 85 percent of U.S. adults over the age of 18 have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but overall close to 40 percent of all Americans remain unvaccinated. 

“We feel that the vaccination-or-testing rules will ensure businesses enact measures that protect employees, create more certainty for the economy. And we don't feel that this is a time for organizations to be backing away from these requirements,” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiBriefing in brief: WH counters GOP attacks on planned SCOTUS pick The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems ready for Supreme Court lifeline Biden to deliver remarks with Breyer at the White House on Thursday MORE said at a recent briefing. 

President BidenJoe BidenCourt nixes offshore drilling leases auctioned by Biden administration Laquan McDonald's family pushes for federal charges against officer ahead of early release Biden speaks with Ukrainian president amid Russian threat MORE’s chief medical adviser Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care — ObamaCare gets record numbers Fans attending Super Bowl LVI to be given KN95 masks The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Breaking: Justice Breyer to retire MORE made headlines last Sunday when he said that “anything that could get people more vaccinated would be welcome” when asked for his thoughts on a domestic travel mandate.

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Fauci has since attempted to clean up his remarks, suggesting that the administration isn’t going to implement anything to get more people vaccinated.

A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly 90 percent of unvaccinated adults said they remain unmoved to get a shot regardless of the omicron variant.

Mandates might be the best way to convince some of those people to get vaccinated, and public health experts say vaccinations remain the best way to end the pandemic.

“You know, we've done the carrot stuff, and now it's kind of the stick part of it,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “We are still getting better containment of a disease by vaccinating people. Which is why the mandates.”

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University, said there's been too much fatalistic messaging from the administration. If people are under the impression that they're going to get COVID-19 no matter what, that will make selling mandates much more politically difficult, he said. 

Gostin acknowledged that vaccines don't totally prevent transmission of the omicron variant, but he said that doesn’t reduce the ethical justification for requiring somebody to be vaccinated.

“But I still think vaccine mandates are warranted,” he said. “If you can do something for somebody that is safe and keeps them healthy, when they otherwise might get very sick or die, that's a good thing. And it's also justified by the fact that we need to preserve health system capacities.”

The federal vaccine requirements have been challenged in courts across the country by GOP governors and business groups. Courts have ruled against three of the administration's major mandates — the health care worker vaccine requirement, the rules for companies with more than 100 employees and the mandate on some federal contractors.

The Supreme Court has scheduled an expedited hearing for Jan. 7 on the health worker mandate and the large employer mandate.

Despite the federal uncertainty, some major metropolitan cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York have either already implemented or announced plans to implement mandates on both workers and customers.

Lori Tremmel Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said it makes sense that larger cities are more likely to put mandates in place than some of the smaller, more rural jurisdictions.

Still, Freeman said she wouldn't be surprised if some locations decided vaccine mandates were not worth it.

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“The idea of vaccine mandates, you know, along with everything else that we look at during this pandemic, it shifts as we learn more about the disease or learn more about how it's mutating or evolving,” Freeman said. 

“This particular variable being so transmissible and the vaccinated clearly aren't protected the way they once were with the other variants, this could impact decisions around vaccine mandates. It could impact decisions around every strategy that we've used,” Freeman said. 

Freeman said it would help if the Biden administration had more consistent messaging. For example, the new guidance on isolation time for asymptomatic cases treats vaccinated and unvaccinated people the same.

“It makes it harder to sell the benefits of getting that vaccine, certainly makes it difficult to sell a vaccine mandate, if you're telling people ... you really don't have to do anything [if you can't quarantine or isolate], just wear a mask.”