Joe Biden hopes you forget that whole Covid vaccine mandate thing

One of the angriest and most divisive issues of 2021 and 2022 — federal vaccine mandates — ends this month not with a bang, but with a whimper. Covid really is distant in the rear-view mirror for the overwhelming majority of Americans, so much so that the end of these federal mandates is receiving only cursory coverage in a busy news cycle. “Pro-vaccine, but anti-vaccine-mandate” was always the right position, and the fact that President Biden and his team are quietly slinking away from one of the biggest and most consequential initiatives of his first two years in office is a signal that they hope everyone forgets about their contentious effort to get Americans fired from their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated.

Hey, remember when vaccine mandates were the biggest, hottest, and most contentious issue in the country?

This month marks the end of an era:

Vaccine requirements for federal workers and federal contractors, as well as foreign air travelers to the U.S., will end May 11. The government is also beginning the process of lifting shot requirements for Head Start educators, healthcare workers, and noncitizens at U.S. land borders.

In some ways, the long national ordeal of the federal government attempting to force people to get vaccines they didn’t want represents a perfect example of Joe Biden’s decision-making.

Back in December 2020, before Biden took office, he said, “I don’t think they should be mandatory. I wouldn’t demand it to be mandatory.”

But less than a year later, Biden changed his mind. He announced the vaccine mandates on September 9, 2021, more or less blaming the continuing Covid cases on the unvaccinated:

This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And it’s caused by the fact that despite America having an unprecedented and successful vaccination program, despite the fact that for almost five months free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot.

Vaccination reduces the severity of a Covid infection, and dramatically reduces the risk of hospitalization or death. (Cue the Hundred Years War in this newsletter’s comments section.) Vaccination did not and does not prevent infection or sickness entirely, and several times during the pandemic, President Biden and his allies overstated the effectiveness of the vaccine.

In October 2021, Biden said at an event in Illinois, “We’re making sure health-care workers are vaccinated, because if you seek care at a health-care facility, you should have the certainty that the people providing that care are protected from COVID and cannot spread it to you.” And then in a December 2021 television interview, Biden said, “Well, guess what? How about patriotism? How about making sure that you’re vaccinated, so you do not spread the disease to anyone else?”

Yes, Biden is an old man who was never particularly careful when speaking off the cuff, but the president exaggerating the effectiveness of the vaccine probably added to some people’s suspicions that they weren’t being told the whole story.

Some studies did show that vaccinated people were less likely to transmit the virus, probably because their bodies fought off the infection quicker, and their bodies “shed” less of the virus during the infection. But it was not accurate to say, as Biden said or implied on multiple occasions, that once vaccinated, you could no longer spread the virus to anyone else.

It is worth noting that subsequent studies proved that “natural immunity” from a previous Covid infection is at least as effective at protecting you from reinfection with the virus as two doses of the Covid vaccine. Some, but not all, of the unvaccinated had caught and fought off Covid earlier and contended that natural immunity offered them sufficient protection. This was not crazy talk.

But Biden addressed the county like a frustrated father chewing out his child for a lousy report card: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.” Perhaps Biden was irked because he had pledged to “shut down the virus” on the campaign trail, and in late 2021, the country was approaching the highest wave of new infections, thanks to the Omicron variant.

In that September speech, Biden pledged:

“The Department of Labor is developing an emergency rule to require all employers with 100 or more employees, that together employ over 80 million workers, to ensure their workforces are fully vaccinated or show a negative test at least once a week.”

“We’ll be requiring vaccinations that all nursing home workers who treat patients on Medicare and Medicaid, because I have that federal authority.”

“Tonight, I’m using that same authority to expand that to cover those who work in hospitals, home health-care facilities, or other medical facilities — a total of 17 million health-care workers.”

“Next, I will sign an executive order that will now require all executive-branch federal employees to be vaccinated — all. And I’ve signed another executive order that will require federal contractors to do the same.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration took about two months to issue the regulations for employers, and in the interim, businesses grumbled that the federal agency wasn’t interested in hearing from them on how the mandate could be best implemented.

OSHA finally set a deadline for employees to be fully vaccinated or begin regular testing by January 4, 2022.

By January 13, the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the mandate for most employers, but kept the requirements for most health-care workers in facilities that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds. Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett concluded that Congress had not given OSHA the authority to impose such a sweeping requirement on workplaces across the nation. Roberts and Kavanaugh joined Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in ruling that the Department of Health and Human Services did have the ability to require vaccination of health-care workers at facilities receiving federal funds. For a little while, there was talk of the Democratic-controlled Congress passing legislation to explicitly authorize federal vaccine mandates, but that never got off the drawing board.

In October, the Court declined to hear a challenge by Missouri and nine other states to the vaccine mandate for workers in health-care facilities that receive federal funds.

Meanwhile, the vaccine mandate for federal contractors kept hitting roadblocks in the federal court system. While the challenges against the Biden administration’s efforts to impose requirements on its contractual counterparties proceeded, the federal government chose to refrain from enforcing the vaccine mandate for federal contractors.

A November 2021 survey found that 53 percent of federal employees “strongly or somewhat disagreed with the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal employees, while 44 percent strongly or somewhat agreed with it.”

And by that month, it became increasingly clear that the Biden administration had no real interest in firing unvaccinated federal workers. “The American Federation of Government Employees said Monday that administration officials have told the union that agencies for now will continue offering counseling and education to the roughly 3.5 percent of workers who have yet to receive a vaccination or request an exemption.”

Meanwhile, Montana banned private employers from requiring vaccination against Covid, and 14 states enacted exceptions, often stating private employers must allow employees to opt out of a vaccine mandate based on a religious reason, medical exemption, immunity from past infection, regular testing, or PPE usage.

By late 2022, as the Omicron wave was in the rear-view mirror and America was really entering post-Covid life, only a bit more than a quarter of Americans believed someone should lose their job for refusing to get vaccinated. An October poll of 1,000 registered voters found that 57 percent of respondents believed “that people who were fired for not getting a vaccination should be rehired,” and only 28 percent disagreed.

In December 2022, the National Defense Authorization Act required the Pentagon to rescind the vaccine mandate; more than 98 percent of the active-duty force had been at least partially vaccinated. The vaccine mandate ended in January; the Military Times reported, “From late 2021 to early 2023, the military services discharged roughly 8,300 troops from the active and reserve components, most of whom received general discharges and were welcome to serve in uniform again if they got vaccinated.”

Today, 81 percent of all Americans have at least one shot; 86 percent of those are age five and over, 90 percent of those are age twelve and over, 92 percent of those are American adults, and 95 precent of those are seniors, according to the CDC.

In the end, the federal vaccine mandates represented a broken promise, a vast and unconstitutional overreach that scapegoated Americans for a continuing pandemic that wasn’t their fault, proved difficult or nearly impossible to enforce, worsened and exacerbated divisions, drove 8,300 otherwise fine servicemen and women out of the military, and had only a middling at best effect on the problem it attempted to solve.

In other words, they were a classic Joe Biden policy.