The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The reality of the testing option in Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandate

President Biden announced on Sept. 9 a six-pronged plan against covid-19 that includes new vaccine mandates and expanded access to testing. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Politics rewards simplicity — and often deliberate and vast oversimplification. That’s on full display now on the right.

Investigating threats against school board members is cast as labeling as “terrorists” parents who would dare to complain. “Critical race theory” has become a catchall for virtually any academic discussion of the impacts of racism. Potential federal financial settlements with families separated at the border is described as if it’s handing out money to undocumented immigrants willy-nilly, rather than compensating people (often those using the legal asylum process) whose children were taken from them.

But another, much more consequential, debate continues to exemplify the dumbing-down of our collective political discourse: President Biden’s vaccinate-or-test mandate for large employers.

Last week, 41 Republican senators issued a lengthy news release signaling that they would formally oppose the rule, which Biden officially announced Thursday and which a federal judge later suspended. The release ran more than 2,600 words and included quotes from 28 of the senators. Only in two of the quotes and some background at the end was the weekly testing option even acknowledged. Much of it suggested that the choice was a binary one between vaccination and termination of employment for everyone involved.

“This week, President Biden’s White House is expected to issue a Rule to officially mandate vaccination requirements for employees at private businesses with more than 100 employees,” the release states, adding that the rule “will affect more than 80 million Americans, and imposes $14,000 fines for persons who do not comply.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) stated that “Biden issued an ultimatum to force countless American workers to get jabbed or be fired.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said Biden’s “unconstitutional” vaccine mandate is “a gross overreach of power and forces Americans to make a choice: comply, quit their job or get fired.”

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said the Biden policy “would force many Americans either to violate their consciences or lose their jobs.”

The Iowa Republican Party, in a separate release on the policy, said administration officials had “unveiled their plan to mandate the vaccine for Americans.”

The nuance in all of this is important. The Biden administration is mandating vaccination for federal government employees and federal contractors — something it has more legal latitude to do — along with health-care workers. But the broader policy at issue here is the one requiring private businesses with at least 100 employees (i.e., covering 84 million workers, or more than half the nation’s workforce) to mandate either vaccination or weekly testing.

And, also important, that latter mandated alternative to vaccination is something Americans have overwhelmingly supported.

A poll conducted in April 2020 by professors and PhD students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that 68 percent of Americans favored requiring citizens to be tested even if they do not exhibit symptoms of illness. That included 60 percent of Republicans.

A survey conducted a few months later by the New York-based Commonwealth Fund showed 81 percent of people at least “somewhat” supported regular testing of everyone in workplaces. Again, Republicans were strongly in favor, with 67 percent supporting the idea.

A poll from Harvard University in January showed that 79 percent at least “somewhat” supported employers’ requiring their workers to take rapid antigen tests before entering work.

More recent surveys show Biden’s specific vaccinate-or-test policy, which also would require mask-wearing by the unvaccinated, polling less well, even as it generally has majority support. That could be because people think we are in a different era (perhaps they believed mandatory testing was more acceptable before vaccines were widely available). It also could be that they might like the idea but do not necessarily want the federal government mandating it.

But it also seems possible that this, like many issues, has fallen victim to our polarized politics and to the talking points of critics who often pitch this as a get-vaxxed-or-get-fired choice — when it is not in the vast majority of cases, strictly speaking. The White House says its vaccinate-or-test policy will apply to 84 million people while the stricter mandate with no testing alternative applies to 17 million health-care workers.

And there’s blame to go around. The policy in news reports often is given the “vaccine mandate” shorthand, with the test option acknowledged later in the reporting.

In this space, we’ve wondered before how the policy might have been received if the option for testing were emphasized more — or even if it were pitched as a mandate for testing with a vaccination opt-out. At the same time, the administration clearly wants people to get vaccinated, first and foremost, so pitching it that way carries significant drawbacks.

(Labor Secretary Marty Walsh did play up the testing alternative in recent days, stating, “We’re encouraging people to be vaccinated and businesses, obviously, to encourage people to be vaccinated. But there are other options in there, such as testing and masks.”)

But it would seem to be more beneficial if that debate focused more on the less-invasive testing option. To their credit, a couple senators in their statements last week did at least mention it. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) in his statement labeled it a “vaccine and testing mandate.” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) went a step further, addressing the substance of the testing alternative but suggesting that testing people weekly was too “rigorous.”

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) also has argued specifically about the testing option, suggesting that we do not have the capacity to make it practical.

However one feels about those latter arguments, at least they’re dealing with the actual substance of the policy for those 100 million people. But they remain the exception to the prevailing talking point that suggests that this is, indeed, a full vaccine mandate for all those people.

The legality of the policy is in the hands of the courts, with an early setback courtesy of a Republican-appointed judge. The Biden administration, in providing the testing alternative, clearly felt this gave the policy a better shot at passing muster. We’ll see.

But it’s not just a legal strategy; it’s also an important alternative to the kind of compulsory vaccinations that Republicans warn about. And when arguing against the broader policy, it would sure be beneficial also to address why a federal mandate of weekly testing is a bridge too far. That might come at the expense of rallying the opposition, but at least we would have a more informed debate about the actual policy.