COVID-19 case numbers, which had been steadily falling in the U.S. since the delta variant crested in September, have again plateaued. The decline from more than 200,000 daily cases has been welcome, but why have the numbers now stalled in the 70,000s? Perhaps it’s the colder weather driving people indoors, in closer contact with others, sometimes unmasked.
But here’s another crucial factor: Less than 60% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. More people need to get their shots as soon as possible.
This is the simple reason President Joe Biden is right to stand by his vaccine requirements. One of them, a mandate that 4 million federal workers be vaccinated, comes into force on Nov. 22. Another, a Labor Department rule that companies with 100 or more employees see that they are either vaccinated or tested weekly, has a deadline of Jan. 4, 2022. (This requirement will apply to about 84 million people, more than 26 million of whom are not yet vaccinated.) Also on Jan. 4, everyone who works at a hospital, nursing home or other health facility that receives payments from Medicare or Medicaid — about 17 million workers at 76,000 facilities — needs to be vaccinated.
Republicans aim to block these rules. More than a dozen state attorneys general filed suit, arguing that the president lacks the authority to issue vaccine requirements for businesses and that, if they come into effect, they will make it harder for companies in their states to hire people. (A federal appeals court has temporarily halted rollout of the rules.) Meanwhile, more than 40 senators say they’ll try to block the rules under the Congressional Review Act, even though they plainly lack the votes to prevail.
This resistance is deeply misguided. Vaccine mandates are nothing new in America, and the COVID-19 mandates imposed so far by companies and states have brought a significant increase in vaccinations. They’re the reason that 92% of New York City’s municipal workers have had at least one shot, and 94% of New York state hospital employees are inoculated. A very small share of employees resist vaccination to the point of losing their jobs. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, only 5% of unvaccinated workers say they’ve gone to that extreme.
Opponents call mandates an imposition on liberty or, in the words of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, an “assault on private business.” It’s true they’re an imposition. Highway speed limits and smoking restrictions are also impositions. The point is, they’re amply justified. Public health requires that people refrain from needlessly endangering others.
Some resisters argue that they should be allowed to skip the shots because they’ve already had COVID-19. It’s true that an initial infection leaves people with some immunity against reinfection. But this protection is weaker than vaccination provides. A recent analysis of data from 187 hospitals found the odds of contracting COVID-19 were 5.5 times higher for previously infected (but unvaccinated) people than for people who’d been vaccinated.
The new antiviral pills that may soon come on the market from Merck and Pfizer are also not a sufficient reason to back away from vaccine mandates. Vaccines offer broad protection against both infection and severe COVID-19. While the antivirals might be able to prevent infections from becoming so severe as to require hospitalization, they don’t guard against catching and spreading the disease, and this needs to remain a priority.
COVID-19 has proven hard to extinguish. Just when it seems to fade, the case numbers rise again — as they are now doing in Europe — and for reasons that can be frustratingly fuzzy. What’s clear in the U.S. is that the unvaccinated population remains too large for the virus to stop freely circulating. Vaccine mandates are needed to bring the epidemic under control.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.