Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate could have a major impact on Michigan workplacesSeptember 13, 2021
Sep. 9, 2021
Kristen Jordan Shamus, Dave Boucher and Adrienne Roberts
Calling it a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” President Joe Biden announced a new, sweeping federal mandate Thursday that will require about 100 million American workers to get coronavirus vaccines with hopes of squelching a national surge driven by the delta variant that has choked the U.S. economy.
“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said. “This is about protecting yourself and those around you, the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love. My job as president is to protect all Americans.
“The bottom line: We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated coworkers.”
The federal COVID-19 vaccine requirement comes through an emergency order via the Department of Labor and will apply to any private company with more than 100 workers as well as employees of health care facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.
Workers who refuse to get vaccinated will have to undergo weekly coronavirus testing. The administration pledged to improve access to rapid at-home tests by working with Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to sell those tests at cost for the next three months. That will lower the cost of these tests by about 35% starting at the end of this week, the White House said Thursday.
Medicaid will be required to fully cover the cost of at-home tests for beneficiaries.
In addition, Biden said he’d sign an executive order requiring all federal government contractors and employees to be fully vaccinated — without the option of weekly tests to avoid the shots.
“We have the tools to combat the virus if we come together as a country to use those tools,” Biden said.
About 75.3% of the U.S. adult population had gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Thursday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Michigan’s vaccination rate is far lower. Just 66.3% of Michiganders ages 16 and older have gotten at least one dose, according to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine data tracker.
Still, the spread of the virus is high in every state in the country, including Michigan.
The state is seeing a growing number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and percentage of positive coronavirus tests — putting increasing pressure on hospitals across Michigan.
Brian Peters, the CEO of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, said Thursday that hospitals statewide are facing a critical staffing shortage that, combined with rising case rates, threatens to push them to capacity.
Dr. Karen Kent VanGorder, Sparrow Health System’s chief medical and quality officer, said its leaders were still evaluating all of what the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate will mean for its workers.
The Lansing-based hospital system did not have its own vaccine mandate for workers before Biden’s announcement — though many others had, including Henry Ford Health System, Michigan Medicine, Beaumont Health, Trinity Health, Spectrum Health, OSF HealthCare, Ascension Health and Bronson Healthcare, along with Veterans Health Administration facilities.
Until now, there was a hodgepodge of vaccine rules for medical workers around the state.
“This is very helpful to provide consistent assurances for patients that they’re safe in American hospitals,” Kent VanGorder said. “The consistency … makes it much easier for hospitals to attend to patients and caregivers in a unified way. And is the safest approach rather than have everyone decide by county or hospital.”
Biden also called on governors Thursday to enact vaccine mandates for all teachers in their states, saying the best way to protect children — many of whom are not yet eligible for vaccines — is to immunize the people around them.
But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer so far has stopped short of requiring vaccines for any state workers, including public school teachers and staff. And Republican state legislators continue to take steps to ban any kind of vaccine requirements.
Bobby Leddy, Whitmer’s spokesman, said “our top priority remains slowing the spread of COVID-19 so that businesses can keep their doors open, schools can keep students in the classroom, and the state can continue our strong economic jump start.”
“The science shows that vaccines offer unparalleled protection against this deadly disease, including the delta variant,” Leddy said. “Gov. Whitmer shares the president’s goal to tackle this virus, and our office is reviewing the president’s plan to understand what this means for Michiganders. In the meantime, we are encouraging all Michiganders to find a COVID-19 vaccine location near them at Vaccines.gov to protect themselves and their families.”
In June, the state House passed a bill that would essentially prevent public entities from requiring vaccines as a condition of employment. In theory, public institutions such as the University of Michigan and Michigan State University — both of which mandate vaccination for students, staff and faculty — would be affected by this bill. However, any such legislation would likely meet Whitmer’s veto pen.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate is an overreach.
“The only thing it seems our government is more concerned about than COVID is their obsession with vaccines,” Shirkey said. “This is not about health care. … It is about control when the government dictates the private health decisions of its citizens. It is about control when the government restricts acceptable health treatments to one specific option. It is about control when the government forces private business to make a specific status a condition of employment.”
Although companies such as Google, the Washington Post, Facebook, Twitter, Uber and Lyft all have announced vaccine requirements, many Michigan-based companies have so far stayed away from requiring them because they’re difficult to manage — from offering religious and medical accommodations to the steps required when employees refuse to get vaccinated.
Rocket Companies Inc. came close to mandating COVID-19 vaccines, announcing last month that all of its unvaccinated employees would be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 tests, according to Crain’s Detroit Business.
Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which represents the business interests of the Detroit region, said while the chamber supports individual businesses that encourage or require coronavirus vaccines, it is opposed to a federal mandate.
“A government mandate that encompasses businesses as small as 100 seems problematic from a political and logistical standpoint,” Baruah said.
In a statement Thursday, General Motors Co. spokeswoman Maria Raynal said the company is strongly encouraging its employees to get vaccinated, but didn’t reference the company’s stance on the federal mandate.
Stellantis said it also urges workers to get COVID-19 vaccines, and plans to “review the administration’s announcement and discuss it with our partners,” said spokeswoman Jodi Tinson.
In a statement Friday morning, Ford Motor Co. said it continues to strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated and has already designated some roles where the vaccine is required. Spokeswoman Kelli Felker said the company will assess the new executive actions “to determine what adjustments need to be made to our current vaccination policy.”
There’s legal precedent supporting vaccine requirements.
In late May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission clarified that no law prevents an employer from “requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, so long as employers comply with the reasonable accommodation provisions” under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with other EEO considerations.
That means a person with a true medical reason not to get the vaccine, such as an allergy to the components, or someone who has a religious objection to vaccination may be entitled to an exemption under the law.
And in June, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled that Houston Methodist Hospital — the first hospital in the U.S. to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees — was within its rights to require them.
“This is not coercion. Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus,” Hughes said in the ruling, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. “It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer.”
In a July legal opinion, the U.S. Justice Department further solidified employers’ right to vaccine mandates.
It found that both public and private employers — as well as universities and school districts — have the authority to require their workers to be immunized.
Still, the Biden administration’s new vaccine requirements are likely to face legal challenges.
Jenin Younes, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based New Civil Liberties Alliance, a legal advocacy organization, said the Biden mandates “vastly” exceed the powers of the executive branch.
“The federal government has no police power, and likewise no authority to force private employers of any size to mandate vaccines. It seems like the White House is trying to usurp legislative power that it does not have,” Younes said.
Biden said the vaccines are safe, free and easy to get; the Pfizer vaccine has full FDA approval.
“We’ve been patient,” he said. “But our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us. So please, do the right thing.”