with Paige Winfield Cunningham

President Biden came into office touting his strong ties with the labor movement.

But when it comes to his administration’s recent push for vaccine mandates, unions are hardly in lockstep.

Some unions have walked a fine line, stressing the need for any mandates to be negotiated with bargaining units before implementation. Others — most notably the nation’s largest teachers union — have shown increasing openness to mandates after initially expressing skepticism.

Biden met with mixed reactions when he announced vaccine requirements for federal workers.

Last month, the president's announcement requiring federal workers to either get vaccinated or submit to new requirements for masking, testing and social distancing split the labor movement.

It represented a change in approach from the administration’s previous tact of touting incentives and celebrity endorsements to entice people to get vaccinated – and came amid surge of cases driven by the delta variant and stalling vaccination rates.

“If in fact you are unvaccinated, you present a problem — to yourself, to your family, and to those with whom you work,” Biden said in an address announcing the new rules. “You want to know how we put this virus behind us? I’ll tell you how. We need to get more people vaccinated.”

“People are dying, and will die, who don’t have to die,” President Biden said on July 29, calling on unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated against covid-19. (The Washington Post)

Biden received a crucial vote of support from the nation’s largest national union, the AFL-CIO. Then-President Richard Trumka expressed his approval of vaccine mandates, saying that “if you are coming back into the workplace, you have to know what's around you." (Trumka died unexpectedly Aug. 5. The national union will meet Aug. 20 to pick a new leader).

  • The American Foreign Service Association, which represents State Department workers, also backed Biden’s announcement of the new vaccine requirements, citing a covid-19 outbreak in its embassy in Kabul, and rising cases tied to the delta variant in its message of support.
  • The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which has 90,000 members including workers at NASA and Navy shipyards, said it “fully supports” the mandate in a statement.

These supporters of mandates in the labor movement frame them as a tool for ensuring the safety of workers and their family members. 

But other unions, including some representing emergency responders and postal workers, were less enthusiastic, worrying that mandates cede too much power to employers.

  • The American Federation of Government Employees said in a statement that any new vaccine policies would need to be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”
  • The Service Employees International Union takes a similar position, telling its members that vaccine mandates are legal but that employers may be required to bargain over them with the union.
  • The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents more than 26,000 officers, said the mandate infringed on civil rights.
  • The American Postal Workers Union was also direct in its opposition. “It is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent,” the union said in a statement. (A White House spokesperson told The Post that U.S. Postal Service workers will not be subject to the mandate).
As the delta variant surges, teachers unions have shown increasing openness to mandates.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union representing teachers, endorsed a policy of mandatory vaccinations or testing last week.

“We believe that such vaccine requirements and accommodations are an appropriate, responsible, and necessary step to ensure the safety of our school communities and to protect our students, NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement.

That’s a shift for the union, which had previously refused to endorse mandates, telling Health 202 earlier last week that “there are often complex medical issues at play, and we don’t presume to understand them all.”

The largest California state teachers union, which is affiliated with the NEA, has also backed the state’s decision to require vaccines or weekly testing for public and private teachers in the state.

But the nation’s second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, stopped short of fully endorsing a vaccine mandate. The union instead urged its workers to negotiate potential mandates with local governments and employers.

“We believe that workplace policies should be done with working people, not to them,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. 

The national teachers unions have lobbied aggressively to ensure teachers had priority access to vaccines and have been vocal in encouraging vaccinations. The unions estimate that more than 90 percent of teachers have been vaccinated.

Bradley Marianno, an education policy professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, says that the national teachers unions are in a tough position, as they seek to promote vaccines without undercutting local unions who may be telling employers they'll agree to a mandate in exchange for other workplace protections. “They don’t want to usurp local-level collective bargaining power,” Marianno said.

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: The Biden administration is planning to announce most Americans will need coronavirus boosters.

“The administration’s health and science experts are coalescing around the view that people will need the boosters eight months after being fully vaccinated, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a decision not yet public. The move is likely to be announced as soon as this week,” The Post's Laurie McGinley and Tyler Pager report.

Pfizer and BioNTech submitted data to the FDA for vaccine boosters on Monday. The companies said in a news release that preliminary data shows a third dose of their vaccine boosts antibody levels and may offer enhanced protection against the beta and delta variants. 

Federal health officials in recent months expressed skepticism about the need for booster shots in the short term, reassuring Americans that the vaccines offered robust protection for the vaccinated. But that messaging has changed amid surging cases of the delta variant and as data from the U.S. and other countries showed waning immunity.

“The question of boosters has become increasingly fraught as the pandemic has unfolded, with the ferocity of the delta variant surprising scientists. Data continues to accumulate suggesting that vaccines lose some anti-virus potency over time, but officials have been reluctant to highlight that fact because they are still trying to persuade broad swaths of Americans to get vaccinated — which is considered the best way to exit the pandemic. They are also not sure how much of the reduction in protection is from the passage of time and how much is attributable to the variant,” our colleagues write.

OOF: New Yorkers will need to prove in many settings that they've had a coronavirus shot.

People in New York City must now show proof of at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine if they want to dine indoors, visit a movie theater or go to an indoor gym, as the city's the “Key to NYC” program goes into effect, although city inspections and enforcement will not begin for another month. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that the program, which requires vaccination in a variety of settings, will also expand to include museums.

The launch of the program comes as more cities and states are turning to vaccine mandates. New York state and D.C. announced that they will require health-care workers to get vaccinated. Similar moves were previously announced in California and Washington state.

Our Post colleagues describe summer 2021 as the “season of mandates.” Rules requiring masks and vaccinations have reemerged as “the pandemic’s latest cultural and political flash point,” The Post's Dan Diamond, Kim Mueller, Alex Baumhardt and April Capochino Myers write. “[V]accine mandates have been the source of significant controversy, prompting lawsuits, walkouts and political grandstanding from critics — even as many vaccinated Americans demand the measures, saying such protections are overdue.”

OUCH: A man shot six times had to wait more than a week for surgery in a hospital overwhelmed by covid.

“Joel Valdez isn’t in the hospital for covid-19, but he’s feeling its effect. For 10 days, Valdez has been in a hospital bed at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston awaiting surgery after he was shot six times outside a grocery store as an unlucky bystander to a domestic dispute,” The Post’s Kim Bellware reports.

The intensive care unit at the hospital where Valdez is awaiting surgery was at 103 percent of capacity as of Monday morning, with 33 percent of those cases related to covid-19, a spokesperson for Harris Health System told The Post. 

A surge in covid-19 cases has strained hospital capacity in Houston and across the country. Last week, Arkansas reported its ICU capacity was at just eight open beds across the state. Officials in Louisiana have warned that hospitals are “days away” from being so overwhelmed that ambulances won’t be able to transport patients. Daily hospital admission rates of covid-19 in Texas are approaching levels not seen since December.

“Having broken bones and bullets in me for over a week now, it’s a little frustrating,” Valdez told KRIV. “Do your best to maintain your health and not end up in a situation that puts you in the hospital right now.”

What went wrong

Failures in coronavirus tracking throughout the pandemic left health officials scrambling.

A Politico investigation based on interviews with four dozen health officials across 25 states details how officials failed to identify coronavirus hot spots in a timely fashion and stem outbreaks.

“Faced with underfunded and understaffed health departments, many state officials said they were not able to adequately identify and contain outbreaks during surge periods. At many junctures, states had no choice but to ask Covid-positive individuals to conduct their own contact tracing,” Politico’s Erin Banco reports.

  • Labs were overwhelmed by an influx of people getting testing. A shortage of lab staff led to delays processing results. When the results came in, they were rarely sent as electronic data. Instead, they came in via faxes, emails and even the U.S. Postal Service.
  • State health departments lacked funding and up-to-date technology. Faulty technology systems led to delays in identifying coronavirus cases. Contact tracers, meanwhile, could not keep up with the volume of cases coming in. 
  • Delays in reporting from labs and state health departments impeded the federal government’s understanding of the pandemic. “In one of the most dramatic examples, during the deadly explosion of cases last winter, some states took weeks to gather and report their data, skewing the national Covid-19 picture. It was the holidays. Many health workers took vacations," Erin writes. Senior officials told Politico that “in January 2021 — the deadliest month of the pandemic — states were more than five weeks behind in submitting mortality data to the CDC."

More in coronavirus news

  • Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he supports school districts issuing mask mandates for students and staff – a departure from the stance of some of his GOP colleagues. "I think the schools that are putting mass mandates into place are making a wise decision when the facts are warranted," Holcomb said yesterday, per the Associated Press.
  • D.C. Public Schools probably tested only around 4 percent of students as part of the District’s asymptomatic testing program last spring. That falls short of suggestions by city officials, who said they planned to test 10 percent of students attending in-person classes, The Post’s Perry Stein reports.
  • Babies and toddlers might spread the coronavirus more easily than teenagers, according to a study on household transmission published in JAMA. The researchers suggest that the differences may be due to behavioral factors, for instance the fact that very young children cannot isolate from their caregivers when sick.
  • A conservative cardinal who repeated false information about the vaccine and criticized social distancing is hospitalized with covid-19 and on a ventilator, The Post’s Jaclyn Peiser reports.

Biden administration briefing

The Biden administration approved the largest increase in food assistance benefits in history.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday that benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, would rise by more than 25 percent compared with pre-pandemic levels. He said the change would make it easier to provide healthy food to low-income families. The increase is based on an update to the algorithm that governs the Thrifty Food Plan, which tracks the cost of a budget-conscious diet for a family of four.

“Anti-hunger experts have long argued that the Thrifty Food Plan’s metrics are out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face. They say the plan, formulated in the 1960s, was designed when many American families still had only one working parent, allowing the other parent more time for labor-intensive, but cheap, cooking from scratch. In the past two decades, more working families are made up of two wage earners or a single parent, leaving less time for soaking beans and simmering stews,” The Post’s Laura Reiley reports.

Sugar rush