What Biden’s vaccine mandates mean for millions of Americans in the workplace

The vaccine mandate President Biden announced Thursday is the most aggressive step he's taken so far to get shots in the arms of the nearly 80 million eligible Americans who are not yet vaccinated. David Michaels, an epidemiologist who ran OSHA from 2009 to 2017 and served on the Biden administration's COVID transition task force, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • John Yang:

    The vaccine mandate President Biden announced yesterday is the most aggressive step he's yet taken to get shots in the arms of the nearly 80 million eligible Americans who are not yet vaccinated.

    William Brangham explores what the move means for companies and their workers.

  • William Brangham:

    John, this mandate, where employees have to get vaccinated or face weekly testing, will be enforced by the federal agency that sets workplace safety standards, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

    Joining me now to help us understand this policy might actually work is David Michaels. He ran OSHA from 2009 to 2017. He's also an epidemiologist and served on the Biden administration's COVID Transition Task Force. He's now a professor of public health at George Washington University.

    David Michaels, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    Let's stipulate from the outset this mandate has caused enormous controversy. GOP governors across the country are threatening lawsuits. There will likely to be a wave of litigation about this.

    We are not talking about that. We're talking about how this might unfold. From your experience at OSHA, how does this rule get enforced?

  • David Michaels, Former OSHA Administrator:

    The first thing to say is, OSHA doesn't need to do a lot of enforcement, because most employers want to be law-abiding. And they will look at the rule and say, how do we meet this rule?

    Their attorneys, their H.R. specialists will say, this is what you need to do. And so that alone will have a great impact.

  • William Brangham:

    So you think employers, even before the rule comes out and is officially stamped on U.S. government letterhead, they might actually start rolling this out in advance of that?

  • David Michaels:

    Our experience at OSHA, in every rule that we put out, is, employers anticipate the rule. They said, we're going to have to do this in weeks, months, even years, and they start making the changes to meet that rule.

    So I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see — start seeing that immediately. But this rule is going to come out relatively quickly, in a matter of weeks, I hope. Once it comes out, employers will say, how do I do this? And many of them will just — will be — they will be relieved.

    They would like to do this now. But they understand it's controversial, but now they will be able to say, look, the federal government says we must do this. And, therefore, if you want to come into work here, you need to be vaccinated, or you need to show us that you're not infectious.

    And that's the key, because OSHA says to the employer, you have to make sure your workplace is safe. Your employees don't have to be vaccinated. And there is no vaccine mandate, per se. It says you can't let someone into your workplace who is very likely to be spreading the virus.

  • William Brangham:

    From your experience, has OSHA ever tackled a vaccine requirement like this before? I mean, we think of OSHA as being governing repetitive stress and things that would hurt you while you're in the workplace. This seems like a slightly different thing.

  • David Michaels:

    It's a little different, though OSHA does have a requirement that, in health care facilities, workers have to be offered hepatitis B vaccine. And if they don't want to be vaccinated, they have to sign saying they have been offered the vaccine, because the risk of hepatitis B used to be quite significant in health care facilities.

    It's not significant now because OSHA has a rule that said workers have to be protected. But this is a step forward, but it's still within the philosophy of OSHA, which says the employer has to make sure the workplace is safe. In this case, the hazard comes from unvaccinated workers.

    And so you have got the control the hazard. And it makes perfect sense within the law. And that's why I'm not particularly worried about legal challenges to this law.

  • William Brangham:

    Does it complicate matters at all, from an enforcement perspective, that we don't have a very good way of proving who actually is vaccinated?

    I mean, we have those little CDC cards. But we know there's an ocean of counterfeits out there. It's basically an honor system. Does that complicate it?

  • David Michaels:

    I think it will complicate it.

    And OSHA has always held that, if an employer is trying to do the right thing, and they can show that they tried, if it turns out that what they tried to do didn't succeed, they won't be cited. And that certainly could come up here.

    But I think the expectation is, if you suspect a worker has a counterfeit card, you probably have to pull some strings and figure out whether it's true or not. But that's going to be the exception.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to ask about penalties.

    The White House COVID coordinator was asked today about the penalties involved in this. And he was a little reluctant to get into that. But then he said that they could be upwards of $13,000 per infraction, I think is what he said.

    From your experience, do penalties work as a lever?

  • David Michaels:

    You know, penalties work as a disincentive for small employers. Large employers generally look at penalties as a minor cost.

    But they don't want to be cited by OSHA, because one thing OSHA does do is, they put out press releases. And it turns out press releases saying this employer violated the law or this employer violated this regulation, and we saw that, that is much more effective with many employers. They don't want to be in an OSHA press release.

    In fact, there was one study by an economist at Duke who showed that an OSHA press release gets as much compliance — now, this is in safety — as 201 inspections. So, the fear of an inspection and the fear of citation and the monetary penalty I think what will motivate some employers.

    And OSHA has lots of tools. And that's certainly one of them. I think employers will see they have got to take this seriously. Of course, many will do it anyway. And I think it will have a very big effect.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, I want you to put your epidemiologist hat on for a second.

    I mean, maybe you have had that hat on this whole conversation. But do you think, in the end, this will serve the purpose the president intends it to serve, which is, will this get more people vaccinated? Will this save people's lives?

  • David Michaels:

    Yes, it's the right first step. But it's not adequate.

    There's really compelling evidence that vaccination alone is not going to stop this pandemic. It's not going to stop spread. We know about — we know that. What we need to do is apply the basic commonsense public health precautions, masking in indoor settings, improved ventilation and filtration to make sure the air is clean, that it doesn't have viruses in it.

    And I think this is a lost opportunity. While we're telling employers to make sure their workers are vaccinated, we should also be saying, make sure people wear masks in situations where it's important to do that, where people are congregating, whether it's restaurants, at gymnasiums, warehouses. And make sure you have done everything you can to make sure clean air is coming in.

    And if it's not, let's put up some good filters to make sure we're catching those viruses. So, I'd like to see more, but I think it's certainly an important first step. And I think it will have a big impact.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, David Michaels of George Washington University, thank you so much for being here.

  • David Michaels:

    My pleasure.

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