Public health leaders support vaccine mandate to protect American workers

The Biden administration’s coronavirus vaccine mandate rule for large companies is based on the latest scientific evidence and would prevent thousands of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, according to two public health amicus briefs filed with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court consolidated the applications of both challenges to regulations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that were considered by Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito, and scheduled both to be heard on Jan. 7.

Lower court orders, which allowed the employer mandate and partially allowed the health-care worker mandate, will remain in effect until then.

Under OSHA’s emergency order, approximately 84 million Americans working for large companies must either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or wear a mask at work and regularly get tested for the disease starting January 4.

Soon after OSHA issued the rule, a slew of lawsuits were filed seeking to block the regulations. The plaintiffs contend the rule is an overreach of the agency’s authority and they dispute the risk that COVID-19 presents to workers.

The group challenging the mandates include 27 states with Republican attorneys general or governors, private businesses, religious groups, and national industry associations such as the National Retail Federation, the American Trucking Associations and the National Federation of Independent Business.

The two public health amicus briefs say the OSHA rule falls squarely within the agency’s authority to help protect workers facing grave danger on the job. To date, COVID-19 has swept through meatpacking plants and other industrial sites, but also poses a risk to office and retail workers, where in-person work and gathering in group settings can facilitate the spread of the airborne virus.

One amicus brief was signed by more than 100 of the country’s leading educators, scholars and public health professionals; 29 deans of premier academic programs; the American Public Health Association; and other leading medical, nursing and public health professional groups. The amici contend that the plaintiffs have ignored the scientific evidence showing that workplaces are at risk for both transmission and infections with this contagious virus.

“This administration acted decisively to put in place an OSHA rule that could protect American workers, a move that is particularly important given the many documented COVID-19 outbreaks that have occurred in workplaces, and that may become even more frequent with the spread of the Omicron variant and other potential new variants,” Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, and one of the amici, said. “It is now up to the courts now to uphold OSHA’s authority to keep workers safe.”

The court battle comes at a time when public health officials are watching closely as a new variant of COVID-19 spreads aggressively. Some scientists think the Omicron variant could be the most contagious virus variant yet. If the OSHA rule is upheld it could help prevent transmission in workplaces and beyond.

“Workers in America deserve a safe place in which to work,” Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, and one of the amici, said. “OSHA has a legal responsibility to protect our nation’s workers and has done so by promulgating this important standard that protects them from the severe impacts of COVID-19 disease that can be acquired in the workplace.”

The other amicus brief, which was signed by former administrators of OSHA who were appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, also argues that OSHA has the statutory authority to issue the COVID-19 vaccine or test rule.

“OSHA’s job is to protect the nation’s workers and this emergency temporary standard would do exactly that,” David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at GW and a former administrator of OSHA, said. “This standard will both save lives and help our economy recover, encouraging millions of workers who have left the workforce to return because their workplaces will be safer.”

The case is now before the Sixth Circuit Court, but legal experts say the litigation could continue for months and ultimately could end up in the Supreme Court.

The first amicus brief, which was filed by Bloomekatz Law LLC and Gupta Wessler PLLC, can be accessed here.

The second amicus brief, which was filed by Public Citizen Litigation Group, can be accessed here.

The public health scholars who signed these briefs did so in their individual capacities. The views expressed are their own and do not represent their affiliated institutions, organizations or employers.

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