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LANSING—Roughly half of Michigan's workforce will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing under President Joe Biden's sweeping new plan to combat the delta variant.
Executive orders and federal rules Biden outlined Thursday afternoon seek to boost vaccination rates by mandating that businesses with more than 100 employees require worker inoculations or weekly virus tests.
The first-term Democrat will also require all federal employees to be vaccinated, along with workers in firms that contract with the federal government. Same with employees at all hospitals and other medical operations that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.
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Biden also upped the pressure on governors by urging them to require teachers and school officials to become vaccinated, a step Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has not yet taken.
The emergency business rules, which Biden is instructing the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to draft, are expected to cover 80 million American workers as part of a push to slow a resurgent virus that threatens the country’s economic recovery.
That includes nearly 2 million Michiganders who work for companies that will be subject to the rules because they have more than 100 employees, according to a Bridge Michigan review of U.S. Census data.
“If we raise our vaccination rate, protect ourselves and others with masking, expand testing and identify people who are infected, we can and we will turn the tide on COVID-19,” Biden said Thursday.
But, the president acknowledged, "we're in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while” because the delta variant has extended what he called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Biden’s plan signals a dramatic re-escalation in the battle against COVID-19 two months after a July 4 speech in which the president celebrated the nation’s near “independence” from the virus.
The delta-fueled spike has restricted the president’s options, said Linda Vail, Ingham County health officer and a member of board of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, which represents the state’s local 45 health departments.
“It’s a tough place to be right now,” she said. “We could do nothing, and we risk additional variants, and one that will no longer respond to our vaccine, and then where are we?”
Echoing the consensus among medical experts, Vail added: “The vaccines are safe. The vaccines are effective. There’s no reason for us to be here right now.”
Still, the mandate undoubtedly will drive divisions deeper and emotions higher, said Nick Derusha, the public health association’s president.
“Getting more folks vaccinated, that's good,” Derusha said. “But the way to go about it — I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows. Certainly, there are folks that are not going to like this approach.”
The news comes as vaccination rates have slowed nationwide and in Michigan, where 61.5 percent of residents 18 and older have completed one of three vaccine regimens. That’s the 28th highest rate in the country and below the national rate of 64.5 percent.
Some labor advocates have said it can be difficult for many workers to take time to get vaccinated. To address that, Biden said large companies subject to the mandate must also give workers paid time off so they can get inoculated or take a family member to get a shot.
Here’s what you need to know about Michigan reactions to Biden’s plan:
Business leaders call mandate ‘very concerning’
Michigan’s businesses have increasingly been worried about a federal vaccination mandate as they deal with issues ranging from labor shortages to escalating product costs.
Biden’s announcement only raises concerns about government mandates that take decisions away from businesses, said Andy Johnston, vice president for government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The reaction is going to be very controversial,” Johnston said. One reason is that it likely will put employers in the position of enforcing the rule, much like other workplace regulations enacted earlier in the pandemic.
The bottom line at the Grand Rapids chamber: “There is a lot of disagreement on COVID and how to address it,” Johnston said. “But any decision on employment should rest with private business owners.”
The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce supports businesses that want to enact their own vaccination mandate, said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO. However, he said, when it comes to private employees, “government enforcement of a mandate seems problematic.”
But Baruah also suggested Biden’s announcement might provide cover for some employers who want to take a stronger hand in getting their workers vaccinated.
“There are a lot of companies on the bubble,” Baruah told Bridge, “who feel they have done everything they can to entice and cajole people to get vaccines, and they are seriously considering more aggressive measures.
“My guess is that they’re waiting for some government direction.”
Unintended consequences are a worry, said Wendy Block, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, including the possibility that workers will become even harder to find.
“With 30 percent of Michigan either resistant to getting vaccinated or hesitant to do so, in a talent market like we have in Michigan … employers are reluctant to push away 30 percent of potential applicants or current employees,” Block said.
The move also could drive workers to smaller employers not affected by the mandate.
What it means for hospitals
Most of Michigan’s large hospital systems already require vaccines among medical and support staff — following the lead of the Henry Ford Health System, which announced its requirement in June.
Still, some have declined to do so — the Detroit Medical Center, Grand Blanc-based McLaren, and Lansing-based Sparrow Health System, among them.
The Biden plan would force those reluctant hospital systems aboard.
Just weeks ago, the Biden administration threatened to pull Medicare and Medicaid dollars from long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, if they did not enact staff vaccine mandates, which sent shudders through an industry wracked with staffing shortages as well as vaccine hesitation.
For similar reasons, hospitals also face staffing shortages some 18 months into the pandemic, with nurses and other personnel quitting, taking early retirements or switching fields. Some hospitals are concerned that forced vaccines might drive away the very workers desperately needed as COVID begins filling hospital beds again.
Michigan Health and Hospital Association spokesperson Ruth Anne Sudderth said Biden’s plan may prevent workers from moving within the industry as a way to duck vaccine mandates. But it may also “end up pushing workers into other industries or to smaller employers.”
Sparrow’s chief medical and quality officer, Dr. Karen Kent VanGorder, called the Biden plan “very helpful” in providing “consistent assurances for patients that they’re safe in American hospitals.
“The consistency between hospitals makes it much easier for hospitals to attend to patients and caregivers in a unified way, and is the safest approach rather than (having) everyone decide by county or hospital,” she said.
What about schools and entertainment venues?
Biden called on governors Thursday to do what Whitmer has not yet done in Michigan: mandate vaccinations for all school teachers and staff.
A Whitmer spokesperson said the governor "shares the president’s goal to tackle this virus" but noted her office is still "reviewing the president's plan” to understand what it means for Michigan residents.
"Our top priority remains slowing the spread of COVID-19 so that businesses can keep their doors open, schools can keep students in the classroom, and the state can continue our strong economic jumpstart," Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy told Bridge.
Biden stopped short of ordering entertainment venues to require vaccination or proof of a negative test for entry. But he pleaded with sports arenas, concert venues and movie theaters to “please” do so on their own.
As with many issues involving vaccines and the pandemic, reaction was predictably split along party lines.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced on Twitter that her state will “stand up to defend freedom” by fighting the Biden rules in court, and other Republican-led states are expected to sue.
Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature has no power to block federal rules, but some lawmakers told Bridge they are concerned Biden’s plan will burden businesses that are trying to recover from past pandemic rules.
“The only thing it seems our government is more concerned about than COVID is their obsession with vaccines,” said state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.
“This is not about healthcare. It is about control.”
Biden has "lost his mind," said Sen. Ken Horn, a Frankenmuth Republican who chairs the Economic and Small Business Development Committee.
“He needs to attend to the business of running this country, which he's done very poorly so far, and let our businesses run their business,” Horn said.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, praised Biden's aggressive approach.
"To return to normal, we have to beat this pandemic," Kildee wrote on Twitter. "We’ve made great strides against COVID-19, and I applaud (the president) for doubling down in the fight to expand vaccinations and defeat this Delta variant."
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