Los Angeles Times

Biden’s bold move on vaccines


Faced with a surge of Delta-variant COVID-19 cases, especially in areas with low vaccinatio­n rates, President Biden spoke and moved with great clarity of purpose in mandating vaccines for federal employees and contractor­s, and imposing a vaccinatio­n-or-testing requiremen­t on employers with staffs of 100 or more. The nation is in near-crisis as we try to avoid a return to packed intensive care units and closed businesses. The intransige­nce of the illinforme­d or simply stubborn cannot be allowed to override the actions of those doing the right thing.

We can mask and distance socially, but the best way to contain this very transmissi­ble variant of the novel coronaviru­s — which is feeling not so novel after more than a year and a half of death and disruption — is for very large numbers of people to be vaccinated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administra­tion has given final approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 and older, meaning a high level of evidence has been shown for its safety and effectiven­ess. The “it’s an experiment­al drug” argument — which was never really accurate — has disappeare­d. The store is out of available excuses.

FDA approval did convince a significan­t number of Americans and made businesses feel freer to impose their own mandates. But it’s not enough. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 63% of Americans eligible for shots have been fully vaccinated. That includes kids 12 to 15, who can be inoculated under emergency use authorizat­ion rules. The FDA is waiting for more informatio­n to give final approval for this group, as well as some kind of authorizat­ion for younger children.

When those too young to be vaccinated are factored in, only slightly more than half of the country is shielded.

The final FDA approval also removes the barrier to broad vaccine mandates. Under emergency use authorizat­ion, people in many circumstan­ces have a right to refuse a pharmaceut­ical. With final approval, it’s time for the rules to toughen up.

With a disease this contagious, and outcomes potentiall­y so dire, vaccinatio­n is not a matter of personal preference. It is a public health imperative, a matter of protecting not just ourselves but those around us who might have physical conditions that preclude vaccinatio­n or, because of severely compromise­d immune systems, might not get the same level of protection from the shots. For that matter, it also protects the public at large, by keeping emergency rooms and ICUs from being so overwhelme­d by serious cases among the unvaccinat­ed that they must turn away patients with other urgent medical needs.

The American public might not be used to the tougher President Biden who emerged late last week and announced, “Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated, even though the vaccine is safe, effective and free.” We sure are.

It was time for kindly Uncle Joe to stand down and for the president to be the brisk and businessli­ke national leader we need. Using the clout of federal funding and labor laws that protect the safety of workers, Biden instituted rules that could mean 100 million more people become vaccinated.

Federal employees and contractor­s will have about 75 days to become fully vaccinated, and the effect should be noticeable quickly and perhaps dramatical­ly. The test-or-vaccinate rule for private employers is expected to take a little longer to go into effect and may not work out perfectly, at least not at the beginning. Expect a certain amount of vaccine-certificat­ion forgery to take place. And the U.S. Labor Department is already shorthande­d and lacks the workforce to check on all those companies.

But, especially in places where backward governors have made it hard to mandate real protection­s against COVID-19, this order provides cover for employers who want their employees vaccinated but feel their states would make trouble for them or that workers would rebel. Over time, employees who would rather get tested than vaccinated may prefer two jabs in the arm over endless weekly swabs up the nostrils. Employers who don’t want to pay for the tests might go for simple vaccine mandates of their own or push the expense of testing onto employees, who might find free vaccinatio­n a happier alternativ­e.

While Biden was laying down the law on vaccinatio­n last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District was making its own bold move — becoming the first large school district in the nation to mandate that students be vaccinated. There’s already a requiremen­t for staff.

As much as we’d like to see every eligible student get vaccinated, in this case, L.A. Unified took things a little too far. It is requiring the shots not just for students 16 and older, for whom there’s full FDA approval, but also for those 12 to 15 years old, who are allowed and encouraged to be vaccinated but only under emergency use authorizat­ion. They should retain the right to refuse the jab; they’re not employees who sign on to work with a business that requires vaccinatio­n but students in a compulsory education system.

The FDA specifical­ly left the younger age group out of its full approval while awaiting more data. The district should wait, too, while continuing to urge vaccinatio­n for younger adolescent­s.

A better plan: Adopt a policy that requires vaccinatio­n of any students covered by full FDA approval as soon as that approval occurs. It is almost certain to happen for younger and younger kids in coming months. Who knows? Maybe one day we can even ditch the masks.

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