On January 13, 2022, the United States Supreme Court blocked a crucial part of the Biden Administration’s COVID-19 mitigation plan, the vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees. The ruling was a significant setback for Biden in his bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. It also came at a time when the Omicron variant ran rampant through the country.
Since the Supreme Court’s announcement nearly a month ago, federal, state, and local leaders and health officials have grappled with how to quell the spread of the virus going forward. As the Omicron variant wanes in some areas, some may be tempted to call the pandemic endemic and unworthy of major concern, if not over and finished. However, public health officials urge continued caution, since COVID-19 is expected to continue mutating and producing new variants.
With the Mandate Struck Down, What’s Next?
Award-winning attorney Omar Ochoa, founder of Omar Ochoa Law Firm, says the unprecedented nature of the pandemic lent itself to a lot of legal leeway in the beginning.
“This is not the typical emergency situation we’ve seen,” said Ochoa. “This is a regulatory emergency in which people are building rules and enforcing new laws and regulations. It’s just a challenging environment.”
This complicated, novel environment leads to confusion and possible missteps for regulating bodies. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the vaccine / testing mandate, decisions about how to manage these matters in the workplace are now in the hands of business owners. Employers can either hedge their bets and not require their employees to be vaccinated or enact requirements and possibly suffer staffing shortages.
Meanwhile, public health officials may feel that some of their power has been stripped.
What Public Health Officials Can Do
With the Supreme Court limiting the federal government’s ability to mandate and restrict, slowing the spread of COVID-19 has taken quick and creative thinking on the part of governments and public health officials.
Local governments and local public health departments have been the ones, as Ochoa put it, with “boots on the ground” throughout the entirety of the pandemic.
“Local governments are the ones that are trying to make sure people are actually complying,” Ochoa said. “Not having this [mandate] certainly is going to take away an additional measure that local governments could have relied on to encourage vaccinations and make sure people are getting tested. It’s a loss in that regard.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, public health officials have stepped up their information campaigns to educate the public further on variants, vaccines, and testing. Many have been driven to outright pleading for people to get their full round of vaccines, including a third booster shot for most adults. They have also lobbied employers to choose vaccination requirements for their workers, since the Supreme Court’s ruling does not prevent this.
About half the states currently have some form of vaccination mandate in place, and the Supreme Court’s decision does not affect the status of those mandates. Some state and local agencies can still pass laws mandating vaccines, testing, and mask-wearing for all or part of the population. However, past state and local mandates have been met with significant opposition in many places. The pressure is on public health agencies to convince the public that mandates or laws governing measures like vaccines are in their best interest.
To Ochoa, the court’s ruling was not necessarily surprising.
“The courts have been limiting what governments can do in terms of requiring and restricting,” Ochoa explained. “This is not a situation in which courts want to set a precedent to allow for government restrictions.”
At this time, approximately 36% of workers in the United States are required by their employer to get the COVID-19 vaccine. What the future holds regarding further mandates and their effect on the pandemic remains to be seen.