The Biden team regroups after Supreme Court losses on COVID mandates

WASHINGTON (AP) – Concerned but not giving up, President Joe Biden eagerly pushes to encourage people to get COVID-19 shots after the Supreme Court put an end to the administration’s comprehensive vaccination or test plan for large employers .

At a time when hospitals are being overrun and a record number of people are being infected with the omicron variant, the administration hopes states and companies will order their own vaccination-or-test requirements. And if the president’s “bully pulpit” still counts for persuasion, Biden intends to use it.

While some in the business world cheered on the defeat of the mandate, Biden insisted that the efforts of the administration have not been for nothing. The Supreme Court ruling Thursday “does not stop me from using my vote as president to advocate that employers do the right thing to protect Americans’ health and finances,” he said.

The conservative majority of the court has hardly abolished the Danish Working Environment Authority’s requirement that employers with 100 or more employees require their workers to be vaccinated against coronavirus or tested weekly. However, it left a vaccination requirement for healthcare professionals.

Meanwhile, the White House announced Friday that the federal website, where Americans can request their own free COVID-19 test, will begin accepting orders next Wednesday. These tests could provide motivation for some people to seek vaccination, and the administration seeks to address nationwide deficiency. Supplies will be limited to only four free tests per. home.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that OSHA appeared to be exceeding its congressional authority to implement business standards, saying, “While COVID-19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not a business hazard in most.”

The mandate was announced in September last year, accompanied by biting criticism from Biden for the approximately 80 million American adults who had not yet been shot.

“We have been patient. But our patience is running out and your refusal has cost us all,” he said. The unvaccinated minority, he said, “can cause a lot of harm, and they are.”

In a statement after the Supreme Court ruling, Biden expressed disappointment with the result, but said 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 now experience a higher death rate from COVID-19 and even more hospitalizations.”

While the court left open the possibility for the United States to pursue more targeted mandates, White House officials said there were no immediate plans to seek a reorganization of the regulation.

“It is now up to the states and individual employers to introduce vaccination requirements,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday.

The United States is already “sickening” with a 60% vaccination rate, near the bottom of peer nations, said Lawrence Gostin, an expert in public health law at Georgetown University.

“The OSHA rule was really the president’s last best chance to significantly increase the vaccination rate,” Gostin said. But the court, “in a very biased way, deliberately tried to handcuff the president in doing what he has to do.”

Many large companies that had already introduced requirements for vaccination or testing indicated that they had no plans to reverse the course. But smaller companies said they breathed a sigh of relief and feared labor shortages if the OSHA rule had been allowed to take effect.

The Supreme Court ruling has “taken a little bit of a burden of concern off our shoulders,” said Kyle Caraway, marketing director at Doolittle Trailer Manufacturing, who joined a lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General challenging the Biden policy. About 90% of the 175 employees at the Holts Summit, Missouri-based company, had indicated they would refuse to comply with a vaccination requirement, he said.

“It became clear to us that our team would shrink a lot overnight if that vaccine mandate went into place,” said Caraway, who counted himself among those who opposed Biden’s policy. Stopping production could have forced the company “to consider closing our doors,” he said.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers, said the ruling was a relief to health professionals but leaves others without critical protection.

“By blocking the vaccine-or-test rule for large employers, the court has put millions of other key workers further at risk, throwing themselves at companies trying to manipulate the rules against workers permanently,” the union said.

The union called on Congress and the states to pass laws requiring vaccinations, masks and paid sick leave. Workers also need better access to test and protection equipment, the union said.

The renewed debate over vaccination mandates comes as a record number of Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19, the country has an average of nearly 800,000 new cases and 1,700 deaths a day, and vaccine resistance remains an issue, especially in deeply conservative states like Mississippi. Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho, where less than half of the population is fully vaccinated.

Hospitals across the country are suffering from chronic staff shortages and are being bombarded with people showing up in emergency rooms in need of virus testing. National Guard troops have been activated in dozens of states to assist at medical centers, nursing homes and test sites.

A hospital on the outskirts of the Kansas City area had to borrow fans from the state of Missouri’s warehouse and hunt for more high-flow oxygen machines, and the largest county in Kansas said Friday that it is running out of morgue space – again .

Gostin predicted that the court’s action would have a major impact on other federal agencies’ efforts to protect public health, by ruling that OSHA could not regulate anything that would have a huge economic impact without the explicit permission of Congress. And he said states will not be able to compensate for the impact of the ruling.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it has taught us that states cannot handle big, bold problems, can not prevent a pathogen from going from Florida to New York,” he said. “These are national issues that require federal solutions.”

Psaki said the White House would work with companies to promote the benefits of vaccination or testing requirements, and that Biden would highlight successful programs.

“The court has ruled that my administration cannot use the authority that Congress has given it to demand this measure,” Biden said. So “I urge business leaders to immediately join those who have already gone up – including a third of Fortune 100 companies – and introduce vaccination requirements to protect their workers, customers and communities.”

David A. Lieb of Jefferson City, Missouri, and Lindsay Tanner of Chicago contributed.

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