Despite fears of government overreach, the Biden administration’s newest vaccination rules are the right move — and one supported by precedent — to protect lives and promote public health.
President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the federal government will require workers at businesses with more than 100 workers either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly. The requirements are even more stringent for healthcare workers at facilities enrolled in medicare or medicaid programs — they’re required to be fully vaccinated if they want to keep working there.
This move is by far the most direct federal action in response to COVID-19 to date. Oklahoma officials on Thursday denounced the requirement, arguing that the action flies in the face of individual rights and private businesses’ autonomy.
On its face, we can appreciate the concern. Any regulation of the private sector or personal freedom deserves scrutiny, especially in a country that promotes the ideals of individual freedom and responsibility. But in this case, that concern is misapplied — the government already regulates individual and economic freedoms in countless ways we all live with today, and its responsibility to do so only grows during a public health disaster. This is not only the right decision, but a responsible one from a government perspective.
Precedent for government vaccine requirements is older than Oklahoma statehood. In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that a smallpox vaccine requirement in Cambridge, Massachusetts — then experiencing a smallpox epidemic and mandating free vaccinations — did not violate residents’ Constitutional rights.
The requirement was a proven step toward protecting public health, not an unreasonable requirement that did more to impede individual liberty than protect the public, the court said. Smallpox, thanks to its vaccine, is the only infectious disease the World Health Organization designates as “eradicated.”
“The defendant insists that his liberty is invaded when the State subjects him to fine or imprisonment for neglecting or refusing to submit to vaccination … But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint,” Justice John Harlan wrote in an opinion in the Jacobson case. “There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis, organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy.”
Vaccine mandates are not new. Students at all public schools in Oklahoma are required to receive vaccinations for eight diseases before even enrolling in child care, unless they have an exemption. Students in grades 7-12 — the ones most likely to meet the 12-and-over requirement for a COVID vaccination — are required to be vaccinated for seven diseases barring exemptions, according to the state health department.
To serve in the United States military, service members had to have 17 vaccines before the COVID vaccine was mandated for the armed forces in August, according to the Department of Defense.
In the private sector, the government already prohibits businesses from infringing on employees' and applicants’ civil rights and subjecting workers to unfair wages. Well before Thursday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration worked to ensure businesses didn’t compromise employees’ physical health and safety.
This also isn’t the first time the federal government has taken sweeping action on business practice in a time of crisis. In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in response to the Great Recession of 2008. The act created new agencies to protect citizens from financial fraud and enhanced the Federal Reserve’s regulatory powers.
Laws preventing financial fraud existed before Dodd-Frank was passed. But after the greatest economic turmoil since the Great Depression, lawmakers were compelled to protect the public because those laws clearly didn’t cut it.
We believe the same principles and circumstances apply to Biden’s mandate, including on a local level. A moment of crisis, whether it’s an issue of public health or of the national economy, requires steps that may feel drastic, but are justified.
On Friday alone, Oklahoma reported 2,627 new COVID-19 cases, landing the state at a seven-day rolling average of 2,352 cases. This week, Norman reported its highest new case load since January, recording 648 new cases in a week’s span. From Sept. 3-9, Norman Regional Health System had an average of 56 COVID patients in its hospital and 16 COVID patients in its ICU at the end of each day.
The vaccine is a safe and effective tool to protect ourselves and our loved ones against the worst effects of COVID-19; as of last month, the Pfizer vaccine is also officially FDA approved.
As we’ve said before, getting the vaccine is about far more than personal freedom — it’s about looking out for potentially hundreds of others you could infect. We’re glad our federal government is taking that idea seriously.