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Supreme Court Rulings on Federal Vaccine Mandates

In response to the rise of COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, the federal government has proposed vaccine mandates to be ruled on by the Supreme Court. The nation’s split opinions on the government-enforced mandate come as no surprise after the division of recent years. Supporters of the mandate claim it to be a matter of public safety while others argue that it is a violation of their rights.

The first mandate brought to the Supreme Court comes from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). It calls for all healthcare workers in federally funded facilities to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. This mandate is supported by two federal appeals courts, which find the mandate lawful. Court documents from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) read that unvaccinated healthcare workers “pose a serious threat to the health and safety of patients.” The HHS and other federal agencies hope that the vaccination mandate will help keep healthcare workers safe, which in turn would prevent staff shortages. However, opponents of the mandate argue that patients in rural areas will suffer as a result because of the higher number of healthcare workers who will refuse to be vaccinated. Although vaccination mandates for healthcare workers are already in effect in 22 states, others have prohibited such policies. 

The other vaccine mandate being brought to the justices for review is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule. The rule requires private businesses with 100 or more employees to wear a mask and either show proof of vaccination or receive weekly testing. As of January 19th, only 62.9% of Americans are fully vaccinated. Among those fully vaccinated, only 24.1% have received the booster. While OSHA’s rule may help fight the current surge, opponents of this mandate argue that it is damaging and restricts the freedom of businesses.   

On January 13th, the Supreme Court gave its ruling on both vaccine mandates. The majority right-leaning justices voted in favor (5-4) of the CMS mandate requiring healthcare workers in federally funded facilities to be fully vaccinated unless they received a religious or medical exemption. CMS’ statutory powers are predicted to affect around 20 million healthcare workers. Healthcare workers who are affected by this mandate and reside in states that had not blocked the mandate before the Supreme Court ruling have until February 28th to be fully vaccinated. Those who reside in states that had blocked the mandate before the Supreme Court ruling have until March 15th to be fully vaccinated. Although CMS’ mandate was seen as constitutional, the OSHA vaccine/testing requirement for private businesses was not. The justices ruled against (6-3) the OSHA vaccine mandate. The majority of justices believed OSHA was exceeding its authority with this mandate, which would affect over 80 million Americans. Both Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and President Joe Biden have expressed their disappointment with the OSHA mandate ruling and are looking to enforce protective measures that don’t overstep the limits of federal authority. 

Although mandates are being established to fight the surge of cases due to the Omicron variant, they won’t have the serious effects that medical professionals hoped for. Based on our current vaccination rate, the US is going to miss the World Health Organization’s target of a 70% vaccination rate by mid-2022. While mandates might be part of a strategic solution, it seems that there’s still a lot left to consider when it comes to the safety of the public. 

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