COVID Goes to Court
The stakes in the case of National Federation of Independent Businesses vs. OSHA were extraordinarily high. At issue when the US Supreme Court ruled on the legality of the Biden administration's workplace vaccine mandate was not just the future course of the pandemic but also the judiciary's own relevance and credibility.
CAMBRIDGE – The coronavirus is everywhere: in the air, on surfaces, in our respiratory tracts, and, over the past week, at the US Supreme Court. On January 10, key elements of US President Joe Biden’s controversial “vaccine-or-test” mandate provisionally went into force, requiring that all workers at companies with more than 100 employees be vaccinated or tested regularly for COVID-19. With roughly 84 million Americans affected by the mandate, all eyes were on the Supreme Court, which on January 13 struck down the measure.
With the support of a massive body of scientific evidence, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) argued in favor of the mandate, emphasizing that workers “face a grave danger … in the workplace.” But the National Federation of Independent Businesses and 27 states (all Republican-controlled) contended that the vaccine is an “invasive, irrevocable, forced medical procedure” that should not be imposed en masse.
Although the technical question before the Court was whether OSHA has legitimate authority to enforce the mandate, the justices also considered whether COVID-19 does indeed pose a threat distinctive to the workplace. Yet, with only 62% of Americans vaccinated, the stakes were – and are – much bigger than these questions imply. At issue is whether the 38% of Americans who refuse to get the vaccine should be permitted to imperil the majority’s ability to earn a livelihood without facing unnecessary risks to their safety. And even this broader framing still doesn’t address the risks imposed by the unvaccinated on health-care workers, parents, separated families, patients in need of non-COVID-related treatments, and all the children whose development has been disrupted or derailed.