Here we go: Veterans Administration to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for all medical staff

CBS News calls this a “surprising” reversal from Joe Biden’s earlier opposition to a national mandate for vaccination, but it’s neither a surprise nor a complete contradiction. The Veterans Administration became the first federal agency to mandate vaccination for any portion of its workforce, aimed in this case at medical professionals who come into contact with patients. That’s not the same thing as a “national mandate,” but it raises some questions as to why those medical workers have to be told to vaccinate in the first place:

The Department of Veterans Affairs will be the first federal agency to make vaccinations mandatory for all its healthcare employees who work directly with patients, such as doctors, dentists, nurses, and physician assistants. VA Secretary Denis McDonough made the announcement Monday, marking a departure from the Biden administration’s resistance to imposing a vaccine mandate.

“Whenever a veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise,” McDonough said Monday. …

The VA cited widespread support from healthcare trade groups such as the American Medical Association, Society of Hospital Medicine, and the American Nursing Association, which banded together to endorse vaccine mandates in the field earlier Monday.

“This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being,” the groups said in a joint statement.

This isn’t a “federal mandate,” so there isn’t any real contradiction. That refers to a binding order on all citizens (like the original ObamaCare mandate), while this is an employer mandate. Thus there isn’t really a contradiction from the White House’s position on federal mandates, even if this new policy is still wide open for debate on its legality and value.

In fact, as CBS notes, vaccine mandates are not at all new. Schools have mandated vaccinations for decades to prevent the spread of deadly diseases, and employers have also had some requirements in certain situations for vaccinations among their workers. What is new is a mandate for vaccines that have not yet been fully approved by the FDA and are operating under emergency-use authorizations, a wrinkle that might create some legal headaches for the VA and other employers.

On the other hand, Andrew McCarthy points to a federal-court win for Indiana University’s mandate as a sign where courts will likely head in this pandemic:

One needn’t be a fan of mandates to grasp that lower-court judges are required to apply Supreme Court precedents, regardless of whether they agree with those precedents. Significantly, Leichty observed that the university’s mandate included exemptions for students who objected based on religious or medical reasons. If the vaccine mandates for state and federal employees include similar exemptions, they should be sustained by the courts. If they don’t, the government agencies would be inviting the more exacting scrutiny of the Supreme Court’s Cuomo ruling, and all bets are off.

Unless the Supreme Court reconsiders Jacobson, vaccine mandates are going to be upheld. I wouldn’t hold my breath on such a reconsideration. Our history with crises is that the Court gives the political branches, especially the executive, wide latitude to deal with them while the crisis is happening. When the pendulum swings in favor of individual rights, that tends to happen when the crisis is over — setting norms for future crises.

To be clear, I am not arguing against vaccine mandates. I have doubts about them so long as the government has given the vaccines only emergency authorization, but I am predisposed to accept the discretion of elected governments and private employers to require them (with appropriate exemptions). My point here is to assess what the courts are likely to do, irrespective of whether I agree or disagree.

We saw this in the initial Supreme Court rulings over disparate treatment of religious facilities in shutdown orders. It took three tries before the court finally began to overturn shutdowns that imposed more onerous restrictions on churches and other religious-gathering facilities than on retail and commerce.

One has to wonder why the VA felt it necessary to impose the mandate, however. What percentage of their medical personnel remain unvaccinated? Recall that medical workers were given the highest priority access to vaccinations from the start, and for good reason. An infected medical worker could pass COVID-19 to many, many people without even realizing it, and most of those exposed would be more vulnerable to serious infection too. The VA, and for that matter nursing-home staff, are perhaps the most significant groups in that sense for preventing the spread of the pandemic. And yet nursing-home staff vaccination rates are barely better than the general population in most states. Given their priority access to the vaccines, one has to wonder why. Surely there can’t be that many supposedly benighted Republicans in those jobs.

To put the problem in another context: it’s going to be tough to convince skeptics to take the vaccine when so many in the medical industry appear to be shrugging it off. If we need a public-relations campaign to build confidence in the vaccines, perhaps it should start by aiming at the health-care industry and its staff first.

Finally, one has to wonder just how much teeth this VA “mandate” will have. The VA needed an act of Congress to fire the corrupt managers who cooked the books on wait times while collecting bonuses on their “performance,” and let veterans die of neglect. Something tells me that the rank and file at the VA won’t be particularly worried about their jobs.