WASHINGTON – Concerned but not giving up, President Joe Biden is anxiously pushing ahead to prod people to get COVID-19 shots after the Supreme Court put a halt to the administration's sweeping vaccinate-or-test plan for large employers.
At a time when hospitals are being overrun and record numbers of people are getting infected with the omicron variant, the administration hopes states and companies will order their own vaccinate-or-test requirements. And if the presidential “bully pulpit” still counts for persuasion, Biden intends to use it.
While some in the business community cheered the defeat of the mandate, Biden insisted the administration effort has not been for naught. The high court's ruling Thursday “does not stop me from using my voice as president to advocate for employers to do the right thing to protect Americans' health and economy,” he said.
The court's conservative majority all but struck down the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's requirement that employers with 100 or more employees require their workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or tested weekly. However, it did leave in place a vaccination requirement for health care workers.
Meanwhile, the White House announced Friday that the federal website where Americans can request their own free COVID-19 tests will begin accepting orders next Wednesday. Those tests could provide motivation for some people to seek vaccination, and the administration is looking to address nationwide shortages. Supplies will be limited to just four free tests per home.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that OSHA appeared to overstep its congressional authority to implement occupational standards, saying, “Although COVID-19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most.”
The mandate was announced last September, accompanied by biting criticism from Biden for the roughly 80 million American adults who hadn't yet gotten shots
“Our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” he said. The unvaccinated minority, he said, “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”
In a statement after the Supreme Court ruling, Biden expressed disappointment with the outcome but said the mandates have already had their desired effect on reducing the number of unvaccinated adults.
“Today, that number is down to under 35 million,” he said of the unvaccinated. “Had my administration not put vaccination requirements in place, we would be now experiencing a higher death toll from COVID-19 and even more hospitalizations.”
While the court left open the possibility for the U.S. to pursue more targeted mandates, White House officials said there were no immediate plans to seek a redo of the regulation.
“It's now up to the states and individual employers to put in place vaccination requirements,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday.
Many large businesses that had already put in place vaccination-or-testing requirements indicated they had no plans to reverse course. But smaller companies said they were breathing a sigh of relief, fearing worker shortages if the OSHA rule had been allowed to go into force.
A record number of Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19, the country is averaging nearly 800,000 new cases and 1,700 deaths a day, and resistance to vaccines remains a problem, most notably in deeply conservative states like Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho where less than half the population is fully vaccinated.