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Opinion After a Supreme Court setback, there are other ways to pursue vaccine mandates

A health-care worker fills a syringe with a coronavirus vaccine on April 15, 2021. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The Supreme Court’s ruling that President Biden’s vaccine mandate was an overreach, beyond the powers given to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by Congress, should be an impetus for others who do have the authority to push ahead with vaccine mandates. Congress ought to explicitly authorize federal vaccine mandates. It’s now clear, from a year’s experience, that vaccines prevent serious disease, and mandates work to get more people vaccinated.

The justices ruled that OSHA can issue such emergency standards only when employees are “exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards.” The court said public health “falls outside of OSHA’s sphere of expertise” and that exposure to the pandemic virus, although occurring in many workplaces, “is not an occupational hazard in most.” The emergency measure by the Biden administration, covering 84 million Americans and requiring vaccination in companies with more than 100 employees or regular testing and masking, “would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.” The court left open the door to the possibility of a narrower OSHA rule covering certain crowded workplaces and, in a separate decision, upheld the federal government’s right to demand vaccination among 10 million health-care workers in facilities that receive funding from Medicare and Medicaid.

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The question that follows is how to cope with a raging pandemic within the court’s legal boundaries. Unfortunately, the decision will mean fewer people will face mandates to get vaccinated. The unvaccinated are filling up hospital beds and dying at a far greater rate than those protected by vaccines. The court does not take biology into account, but biology also does not take the court into account — the virus will infect every person it can, whether in the workplace or the home. One-third of the American people are not fully vaccinated with the primary shots, and slightly less than half of those eligible for a booster haven’t gotten one.

Much can be done. United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby told employees in a Jan. 11 letter that since the airline’s vaccine mandate took effect, hospitalization among its workers has been 100 times less than the general population. Previously, one employee was dying every week from covid; now the company has gone eight straight weeks with zero covid deaths among vaccinated employees. Other companies should follow suit. States, which do have extensive authority over public health, should back mandates. The time has come, too, for a vaccine requirement for boarding all domestic airline flights.

Mr. Biden’s federal mandate prodded many companies to begin to comply, so the effort was worthwhile. Nothing would prevent him from using the bully pulpit — as he has — to champion vaccination as the most important tool against the virus. The vaccines are safe, effective, free and plentiful; that is a blessing that many other countries can only dream about. The Supreme Court’s ruling should not impede a continued push by those who can to get vaccinated and save lives.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).