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Federal employees — including at the White House — must attest to being vaccinated against COVID-19, or else comply with routine testing and mitigation measures. But conservative commentator Charlie Kirk claims that the “White House staff is not required to be vaccinated,” baselessly questioning if undisclosed concerns about the vaccines are at play.
Some employers have required their employees to be vaccinated, or undergo regular testing, for COVID-19. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that employers aren’t prevented from having a mandatory vaccination policy for COVID-19 for employees who are physically in the workplace, as long as employers comply with federal laws stipulating that reasonable accommodations should be made for workers who cannot be immunized because of a disability or religious reason.
President Joe Biden also signed executive orders in September 2021 to require all federal workers and contractors who do business with the federal government to be vaccinated.
But the Supreme Court blocked a broader effort by the Biden administration to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate that workers either be fully vaccinated or tested at least once a week.
In January 2022, the high court put the administration’s rule on hold while an appeals court considers its legality. In the ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the administration’s attempt to use the Occupational Safety and Health Act to issue an emergency rule requiring vaccination or testing. “Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers,” the court’s opinion reads, “it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly.”
However, the Supreme Court allowed an administration requirement that health care workers at facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding be fully vaccinated, with exemptions for medical and religious reasons.
In that opinion, issued the same day as the OSHA ruling, the court agreed that the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services had the authority to issue the requirement. In its ruling, the court said that “healthcare facilities that wish to participate in Medicare and Medicaid have always been obligated to satisfy a host of conditions that address the safe and effective provision of healthcare” and that vaccination requirements for other diseases were common for health care workers nationwide.
States also can require individuals to be vaccinated.
As legal and public health expert Joanne Rosen of Johns Hopkins Universityhas explained, the legal precedent for states to make vaccinations compulsory goes back to a 1905 Supreme Court case involving the smallpox vaccine. The court sided with the state, finding that the vaccination requirement was a reasonable regulation to protect public health.
The federal government cannot direct states to issue a vaccine mandate, but could provide financial incentives for states to do so.
“[T]he Supreme Court has interpreted the Tenth Amendment to prevent the federal government from commandeering or requiring state officers to carry out federal directives,” the Congressional Research Service explained in a 2019 report. “In the context of vaccination, this principle prevents Congress from requiring states or localities to pass mandatory vaccination laws, but it does not impede Congress from using its Spending Clause authority to provide incentives (in the form of federal grants) to states to enact laws concerning vaccination.”
More than half a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have now been administered in the U.S. and only a few, very rare, safety concerns have emerged. The vast majority of people experience only minor, temporary side effects such as pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, or muscle pain — or no side effects at all. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, these vaccines “have undergone and will continue to undergo the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history.”
A small number of severe allergic reactions known as anaphylaxis, which are expected with any vaccine, haveoccurred with the authorized and approved COVID-19 vaccines. Fortunately, these reactions are rare, typically occur within minutes of inoculation and can be treated. Approximately 5 per million people vaccinated have experienced anaphylaxis after a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the CDC.
To make sure serious allergic reactions can be identified and treated, all people receiving a vaccine should be observed for 15 minutes after getting a shot, and anyone who has experienced anaphylaxis or had any kind of immediate allergic reaction to any vaccine or injection in the past should be monitored for a half hour. People who have had a serious allergic reaction to a previous dose or one of the vaccineingredients should not be immunized. Also, those who shouldn’t receive one type of COVID-19 vaccine should be monitored for 30 minutes after receiving a different type of vaccine.
There is evidence that the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines may rarely cause inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or of the surrounding lining (pericarditis), particularly in male adolescents and young adults.
Based on data collected through August 2021, the reporting rates of either condition in the U.S. are highest in males 16 to 17 years old after the second dose (105.9 cases per million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine), followed by 12- to 15-year-old males (70.7 cases per million). The rate for 18- to 24-year-old males was 52.4 cases and 56.3 cases per million doses of Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, respectively.
Health officials have emphasized that vaccine-related myocarditis and pericarditis cases are rare and the benefits of vaccination still outweigh the risks. Early evidence suggeststhese myocarditis cases are less severe than typical ones. The CDC has also noted that most patients who were treated “responded well to medicine and rest and felt better quickly.”
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been linked to an increased risk of rare blood clots combined with low levels of blood platelets, especially in women ages 30 to 49. Early symptoms of the condition, which is known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome, or TTS, can appear as late as three weeks after vaccination and include severe or persistent headaches or blurred vision, leg swelling, and easy bruising or tiny blood spots under the skin outside of the injection site.
According to the CDC, TTS has occurred in around 4 people per million doses administered. As of early April, the syndrome has been confirmed in 60 cases, including nine deaths, after more than 18.6 million doses of the J&J vaccine. Although TTS remains rare, because of the availability of mRNA vaccines, which are not associated with this serious side effect, the FDA on May 5 limited authorized use of the J&J vaccine to adults who either couldn’t get one of the other authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccines because of medical or access reasons, or only wanted a J&J vaccine for protection against the disease. Several months earlier, on Dec. 16, 2021, the CDC had recommended the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna shots over J&J’s.
The J&J vaccine has also been linked to an increased risk of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks nerve cells. Most people who develop GBS fully recover, although some have permanent nerve damage and the condition can be fatal.
Safety surveillance data suggest that compared with the mRNA vaccines, which have not been linked to GBS, the J&J vaccine is associated with 15.5 additional GBS cases per million doses of vaccine in the three weeks following vaccination. Most reported cases following J&J vaccination have occurred in men 50 years old and older.
Update, Sept. 10:On Sept. 9, Biden announced a federal mandate for COVID-19 vaccines that applies to employees of the executive branch — including White House staff — and all federal agencies and members of the armed services. The mandate does not apply to those who work for Congress or the federal court system.
On July 29, President Joe Biden announced that federal employees and onsite contractors will be asked to attest to their vaccination status — and indicated that those who don’t attest to being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will be required to comply with other mitigation measures, including routine testing, masking, physical distancing and travel restrictions.
But in a highly viewed video on Facebook and Instagram, a conservative personality railing against vaccine mandates is simply claiming that White House employees are “not required to be vaccinated.”
“It should be the No. 1 news story in the country,” Charlie Kirk claims in his Aug. 20 video, which has accrued more than 2 millionviews. “Did you know that in the White House they are not mandating the vaccine? Did you know that White House staff is not required to get vaccinated?”
He later asks whether some undisclosed safety concerns are behind the purported decision to not require the vaccines: “Do they know something about the vaccine? Why aren’t they mandating it? Are they seeing data that is questionable? Should we be worried because they know something we don’t?”
Kirk plays footage in which a reporter asks White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether a vaccine mandate for White House staff exists, and Psaki responds, “No, we have not mandated it.”
While there is still not a full-blown vaccine mandate for White House staffers, that exchange is from July 23 — six days before the White House announcement of the so-called “vaccine-or-test” requirement for all federal employees. A White House official confirmed to us that the policy applies to White House staff.
Kirk did not respond to our requests for comment.
The process of actually implementing the federal policy is ongoing among agencies. The Department of Justice, for example, released an Aug. 13 memo that said an electronic form for employees to indicate their vaccination status would “be available soon” and said it was developing a program to facilitate testing.
We asked the White House for more specifics on the policy rollout for its staff — and what percentage of its workers has so far attested to being fully vaccinated — but it didn’t provide us with answers.
On Aug. 23 — following the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 and older — Biden urged business leaders and others to implement a similar policy.
“If you’re a business leader, a non-profit leader, a state or local leader who has been waiting for full FDA approval to require vaccinations, I call on you now to do that — require it,” Biden said. “Do what I did last month and require your employees to get vaccinated or face strict requirements.”
A reporter asked Psaki the same day whether a more strict mandate would be implemented for federal employees.
“I think you’re looking more at agency to agency or different factions of the government at this point, but expect there will be more on that front,” Psaki said.
In terms of the attestation policy, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force instructs agencies to “ask employees to complete the Certification of Vaccination form” to “provide information about their vaccination status and attest to the truthfulness of that information. Individuals who do not complete the form will be treated as not fully vaccinated for purposes of agency safety protocols.”
Employees who make a false statement on the form risk being fired and are also committing a federal crime, according to the task force.
The task force also directs agencies to “establish a screening testing program for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to test Federal employees and contractor employees who work onsite and who are not fully vaccinated or who have declined to provide their vaccination information. Enrollment in this testing program is mandatory for those individuals and they must be tested at least once a week.”
Employees who refuse to take a test may face “disciplinary measures,” it adds, and could be barred from “the agency workplace for the safety of others pending resolution of any disciplinary or other action the agency may pursue.”
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.