Administrators with the Biden administration will end most of the last remaining federal Covid-19 vaccine requirements next week when the national public health emergency declared during the coronavirus pandemic said the White House on Monday.
Vaccine requirements for federal contractors, workers, and foreign air travelers to the United States will end on May 11. The government will also begin lifting shot requirements for healthcare workers, noncitizens at U.S. land borders, and Head Start educators.
The requirements are the last remnants of some of the more coercive moves the federal government took to promote vaccination against Covid-19 as the virus raged. Their end marks the latest move by the Biden administration to begin treating the coronavirus as an endemic, routine illness.
“While I believe that these vaccine mandates had a tremendous beneficial impact, we are now at a point where we think that it makes a lot of sense to pull these requirements down,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, White House Covid-19 coordinator, on Monday.
The mandates continue to be profoundly polarizing and have faced numerous legal challenges — many that were successful — with vaccination requirements imposed by the president in successive waves as recently as late 2022, despite the nation’s vaccination rate plateauing.
Over 100 million people were at one time covered by President Biden’s sweeping mandates, which were announced on September 9, 2021, as the Delta variant was infecting more people than at any time prior during the pandemic. The president had ruled out similar requirements before taking office that January but embraced them in an attempt to change the behavior of what he believed was a stubborn part of the American public who refused to be vaccinated. He said those individuals were jeopardizing the lives of others and the nation’s economic recovery.
“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” said the president then. The unvaccinated minority “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”
Congress and federal courts have already rolled back President Biden’s vaccine requirements for military servicemembers and large employers.
Mandates remain in place for many employees of the Indian Health Service, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Veterans Affairs — which implemented their own requirements for healthcare staff and others independent of the White House. According to the administration, it will remain up to those agencies to review their own requirements.
In the United States, over 1.13 million people have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic started over three years ago.
“Covid continues to be a problem, said Jha. “But our healthcare system or public health resources are far more able to respond to the threat that Covid poses to our country and do so in a way that does not cause problems with access to care for Americans.”
“Some of these emergency powers are just not necessary in the same way anymore,” said Jha.
Over 270 million people in the United States, over 81% of the population, have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to the CDC.
For over a year, health officials in the U.S. have been eyeing a long-term response to Covid-19 similar to the influenza approach, with updated shots each year to target the latest virus strains — particularly for the most vulnerable. However, fewer than 56 million people in the U.S., or 17% of the population, have received a dose of the updated bivalent boosters that became available in September 2022.
“We don’t have a national mandate for flu vaccines in the same way, and yet we see pretty good uptake of flu vaccines,” said Jha. “The goal here really is to continue to encourage people to get vaccinated, but I don’t think mandates are going to be necessary for getting Americans vaccinated against Covid in the future.”
Covid-19 coordinator: Some employers may decide to continue vaccination requirements
Although federal mandates are ending, Jha predicts that some employers, particularly medical facilities, may decide to continue their Covid-19 vaccination protocols. He noted that the medical facility where he practices had maintained a flu vaccine requirement for over 20 years.
Jha dismissed concerns that ending the international traveler vaccination requirement would increase the risk of a new variant from overseas entering the United States. The president had already rolled back virus testing requirements for foreign travelers to the U.S. and American citizens.
The Covid-19 coordinator said the U.S. was already protected by a traveler genomic surveillance program, which tests for different strains of viruses in the wastewater of aircraft.
“We think that we are much more able to identify if a new variant shows up in the United States and respond effectively,” he said. “And I think that’s what makes the need for a vaccine mandate for travelers less necessary right now.”