Editorials, Opinion

OSHA wouldn’t need mandate if vaccines weren’t politicized

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley both signed on to a “friend of the court” brief opposing the Biden administration’s OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) “vaccine mandate” — in quotations because an employee can choose to remain unvaccinated, but in exchange, they will have to test at least once a week. The Supreme Court will hear the case against the mandate today.

Capito and McKinley make up two of the 47 senators and 135 representatives (plus one “Jeff Davis” who does not exist in Congress, though there is a Jeff Duncan) who signed the amicus brief. All of the signatories are Republicans. It’s also worthwhile to note that all 14 states that began the lawsuit have Republican attorneys general.

If this doesn’t illustrate that COVID vaccination has been made a partisan issue, we don’t know what will.

Despite what conservative talking heads will tell you, the OSHA rule is very reasonable and accommodating.

Employers with 100 or more employees are required to have all employees vaccinated or to implement a testing and masking requirement for unvaccinated employees. In short, all OSHA says is, if an employer declines to have a vaccine mandate, the employer needs to make sure unvaccinated employees are tested at least once a week and wear face coverings while in the work place. Employers must also give paid time off for workers to receive the vaccine, including up to four hours to get the shot and sick leave to recover from the side effects.

Among its complaints, the amicus brief signed by lawmakers claims the testing aspect of the mandate is unreasonable and unfairly punishes the unvaccinated because vaccinated people can spread it, too.

To the first point, the brief says the testing requirement is prohibitive because of cost. However, most, if not all, states and cities have places where people can be tested for COVID-19 for free. Nationally, we are seeing people have difficulty tracking down tests, but that’s largely due to the confluence of post-holiday I-just-spent-a-lot-of-time-with-people-I-normally-don’t and/or I-need-a-negative-test-to-fly testing along with the tsunami of omicron cases.

In addition, we should see 500 million free at-home tests come available this month. Hopefully, since production will have to ramp up to meet Biden’s order, production will stay high so tests continue to be plentiful and affordable. As for community testing, locally, the Mon County Health Department still offers free COVID testing and vaccines at the Rec Center, and test results are usually back within 24 hours.

To the second point: The mandate doesn’t “punish” the unvaccinated — it holds them accountable. While it’s true that vaccinated people can get and spread COVID-19, the same people who are likely to willingly get vaccinated are more likely to willingly be tested at the first signs of sniffles or upon news of exposure. In addition, having large swathes of the population unvaccinated allows for variants to emerge.

Marta Gaglia at the Tufts University School of Medicine explains how mutations and variants happen: “[A] virus will make hundreds to thousands of copies of itself every time it is in a cell. The chances of getting a mutant is high just because there’s so many replications happening. … [M]utations can do nothing, they can impair the virus or they can facilitate the virus replication.”

The more unvaccinated people COVID-19 can infect, the more likely it is that a mutation will occur that can circumvent the vaccine or make the virus even more deadly for unvaccinated people, such as we saw with delta and are currently seeing with omicron.

OSHA has the authority to implement Emergency Temporary Standards when there’s a matter of “grave danger.” COVID-19 is a grave danger — it’s killed almost 830,000 people in the U.S. and 5.5 million worldwide — which means OSHA is well within its authority to enforce a vaccine/testing mandate. Maybe if vaccinations hadn’t become a political pawn, there’d be no need for a national mandate.