On Thursday, Biden announced sweeping new federal vaccine mandates affecting nearly 100 million Americans, his most aggressive pandemic action yet. During his speech at the White House regarding this controversial executive order, Biden criticized Americans who are not yet vaccinated. Growing inpatient, Biden told Americans that the unvaccinated minority “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”
At the core of Biden’s executive order is the requirements that all government employees be vaccinated against Covid-19, with no option of being regularly tested to opt out. Biden also signed an accompanying order applying the same standard to employees of contractors who do business with the federal government. The new federal vaccination requirement applies to 300,000 educators in federal Head Start programs as well as 17 million healthcare workers at facilities receiving funds from Medicare and Medicaid.
Biden’s new order abandons his previous, less stringent mandate that federal workers who opt out of the vaccine be subject to rigid mitigation measures. Now federal employees will have 75 days to get the vaccine or risk termination. Press secretary Jen Psaki said, “the expectation is if you want to work in the federal government or want to be a contractor, you need to be vaccinated.”
Biden’s new plan reaches beyond the federal sector, with a directive from the President to the Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either vaccinated against Covid-19 or tested once a week. Companies who do not comply with this requirement could be slapped with hefty fines, up to $14,000 per person per violation. While it is likely that the requirement that large companies enforce vaccine or testing mandates will be challenged in court, the trend amongst many private companies has been mandatory vaccination against Covid-19.
The United States has a longstanding history of mandating vaccinations where public health and safety was in jeopardy. It began with George Washington in 1777, less than one year after the U.S. declared its independence from Great Britain. At that time, the Continental Army and many Americans were losing the battle against smallpox. By 1796, American soldiers were required to receive the smallpox vaccine and by 2006, soldiers in the armed forces received 13 different vaccines, with additional doses required depending on the region in which the soldier served.
Eventually, vaccination requirements spilled into the lives of everyday Americans. Massachusetts was at the forefront of the vaccine charge. In 1902, a smallpox outbreak crippled the state, resulting in a regulation ordering the vaccination of all residents. By 1905, the issue of a vaccine mandate was decided by the Supreme Court, which held that “in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint.” The Supreme court also determined that mandatory vaccinations were neither arbitrary nor oppressive if they do not exceed what is “reasonably required for the safety of the public.”
To date, most schools and universities require a series of vaccinations for students to enroll. Similarly, U.S. citizenship applicants are also required to receive a series of vaccinations to become naturalized citizens. Ultimately, Biden’s vaccine requirement is only the latest in a long American history of vaccine requirements dating back to George Washington and the Continental Army.
However, history aside, Americans who suffer from a disability that prevents them from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, may be exempt from the vaccine under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Similarly, individuals with a closely held religious belief that prevents them from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine may also be exempt from the vaccine under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. These exemptions apply to both federal and private sector employees. If you do not qualify for one these two narrow exemptions and your employer requires that you be vaccinated, you will be faced with deciding whether to get the vaccine or face termination.
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