Sept. 10, 2021 -- The White House filled in more details Friday of its newly announced plans to blunt the impact of COVID-19 in the U.S.
The emergency rule ordering large employers to require COVID-19 vaccines or weekly tests for their workers could be ready “within weeks,” officials said in a news briefing on Friday.
Labor Secretary Martin Walsh will oversee the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as the agency drafts what’s known as an emergency temporary standard, similar to the one that was issued a few months ago to protect health care workers during the pandemic.
The rule should be ready within weeks, said Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 Response Team.
He said the ultimate goal of the president’s plan is to increase vaccinations as quickly as possible to keep schools open, the economy recovering, and to decrease hospitalizations and deaths from COVID.
Zients declined to set hard numbers around those goals, but other experts did.
“What we need to get to is 85% to 90% population immunity, and that’s going to be immunity both from vaccines and infections, before that really begins to have a substantial dampening effect on viral spread,” Ashish Jha, MD, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said on a call with reporters Thursday.
He said immunity needs to be that high because the Delta variant is so contagious.
Mandates are seen as the most effective way to increase immunity and do it quickly.
David Michaels, PhD, an epidemiologist and professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, says OSHA will have to work through a number of steps to develop the rule.
“OSHA will have to write a preamble explaining the standard, its justifications, its costs and how it will be enforced,” says Michaels, who led OSHA for the Obama administration. After that, the rule will be reviewed by the White House. Then employers will have some time -- typically 30 days -- to comply.
In addition to drafting the standard, OSHA will oversee its enforcement.
Companies that refuse to follow the standard could be fined $13,600 per violation, Zients said.
Michaels said he doesn’t expect enforcement to be a big issue, and he said we’re likely to see the rule well before it is final.
“Most employers are law-abiding. When OSHA issues a standard, they try to meet whatever those requirements are, and generally that starts to happen when the rule is announced, even before it goes into effect,” he said.
The rule may face legal challenges as well. Several governors and state attorneys general, as well as the Republican National Committee, have promised lawsuits to stop the vaccine mandates.
Critics of the new mandates say they impinge on personal freedom and impose burdens on businesses.
But the president hit back at that notion Friday.
“Look, I am so disappointed that, particularly some of the Republican governors, have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier of the health of their communities,” Biden told reporters.
"I don't know of any scientist out there in this field who doesn't think it makes considerable sense to do the six things I've suggested."
Yet, others feel the new requirements didn’t go far enough.
“These are good steps in the right direction, but they’re not enough to get the job done,” said Leana Wen, MD, in an op-ed for TheWashington Post.
Wen, an expert in public health, wondered why Biden didn’t mandate vaccinations for plane and train travel. She was disappointed that children 12 and older weren’t required to be vaccinated, too.
“There are mandates for childhood immunizations in every state. The coronavirus vaccine should be no different,” she wrote.
Vaccines remain the cornerstone of U.S. plans to control the pandemic.
On Friday, there was new research from the CDC and state health departments showing that the COVID-19 vaccines continue to be highly effective at preventing severe illness and death.
But the study also found that the vaccines became less effective in the U.S. after Delta became the dominant cause of infections here.
The study, which included more than 600,000 COVID-19 cases, analyzed breakthrough infections -- cases where people got sick despite being fully vaccinated -- in 13 jurisdictions in the U.S. between April 4 and July 17, 2021.
Epidemiologists compared breakthrough infections between two distinct points in time: Before and after the period when the Delta variant began causing most infections.
From April 4 to June 19, fully vaccinated people made up just 5% of cases, 7% of hospitalizations, and 8% of deaths. From June 20 to July 17, 18% of cases, 14% of hospitalizations, and 16% of deaths occurred in fully vaccinated people.
“After the week of June 20, 2021, when the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant became predominant, the percentage of fully vaccinated persons among cases increased more than expected,” the study authors wrote.
Even after Delta swept the U.S., fully vaccinated people were 5 times less likely to get a COVID-19 infection and more than 10 times less likely to be hospitalized or die from one.
“As we have shown in study after study, vaccination works,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said during the White House news briefing.
“We have the scientific tools we need to turn the corner on this pandemic. Vaccination works and will protect us from the severe complications of COVID-19,” she said.