Lawmakers clashed over vaccine mandates issued this week for certain private employees and healthcare workers during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee.
Critics of the mandates, mostly Republicans, argued at Thursday’s hearing that the mandates are too heavy-handed and could exacerbate labor shortages, while supporters, largely Democrats, said the new rules are critical to keeping workers safe on the job, and to ending the pandemic.
Mandate Success Debated
Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said a majority of Americans support vaccine mandates and cited their success across multiple industries from the airlines to food manufacturers, which she said has led to a more than 20% increase in vaccination rates as of last month.
“Across the country, healthcare facilities, universities and other employers are seeing similar results,” Murray said, adding that she expects that those trends to continue following the Biden administration issuance of an Emergency Temporary Standard requiring employers with 100 workers or more to require either vaccination or regular COVID testing for their employees.
But Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was far less enthusiastic. He pointed to the police officers and firefighters who quit their jobs when vaccine mandates were implemented for public employees in certain areas of the country, and he predicted a similar exodus of healthcare workers following a vaccination mandate for providers who receive Medicare and Medicaid payments. “I urge all of you, back away from mandates, and instead, use your platforms to educate, encourage, [and] inform,” he said to a panel of federal officials from the NIH, CDC, FDA and the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
In particular, Burr questioned whether the scientific data really supports mandated vaccines for people previously infected with COVID-19. He cited an NIH study that found 95% of people who have recovered from COVID have three of five components needed to recognize the virus up to 8 months after being infected; an Israeli study suggesting that natural immunity leads to stronger protection from re-infection, hospitalization and severe disease from the Delta variant; and a third study from Rockefeller University showing that vaccination triggers the production of memory B cells for a few weeks, whereas COVID infection produces memory B cells up to a year after infection.
However, Burr also acknowledged and cited other studies that conflicted with these claims, noting that the data is not “black and white.”
CDC Director Weighs In
After reviewing a scientific brief, which analyzed 96 studies on the matter, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said the agency still recommends that people who have had prior infections be vaccinated. She explained that because vaccine studies can prospectively follow vaccinated individuals “we can see the durability with a date certain.” In comparison, studies of infection-induced immunity are “murkier,” she said. Many of those studies are retrospective or observational and while some have looked at antibodies and memory B cells, T cells “are harder to study and harder to evaluate … in a commercial type fashion.”
She also highlighted a CDC study Burr had himself cited that compared vaccinated individuals to those previously infected, and found that the previously infected group was 5.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID.
Anthony Fauci, MD, the president’s chief medical adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added that in the next several months researchers will be studying B cell and T cell responses across three groups — individuals who have been vaccinated, those who have received boosters, and those who have been previously infected with COVID — to try to assess the clinical effect. “Hopefully, we’ll get more definitive information over the next several months,” he said.
Burr continued to argue that individuals with natural immunity should be exempt from the mandate, but Walensky was unmoved. She repeated the agency recommendation that those who have been previously infected get vaccinated to achieve a “more durable and robust and known immune response.”
The ranking member concluded by saying the mandate will be a “hard sell” among those with natural immunity, particularly among healthcare workers serving Medicare and Medicaid patients. “We’re not going to have the people to surge … I think we need to think about this,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as he has done at other hearings, aggressively questioned Fauci over Paul’s claim that Fauci approved NIH funding for gain-of-function research at a laboratory in Wuhan, China. He also said that Fauci had changed the definition of such research on the NIH website in order to cover his tracks.
The country is not any closer to preventing “another lab leak of this dangerous sort of experiment… and for that lack of judgment, I think it’s time that you resign,” Paul said. Fauci responded that it is “irrefutable” that the grants the NIH funded in Wuhan “would be molecularly impossible to have resulted in SARS-CoV2,” a fact that is often missed.
Call for More Vaccine Options
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said her state is seeing four times the national average of COVID-positive cases and expressed concern over vaccine hesitancy combined with the difficulty of administering currently approved or authorized vaccines. She questioned why there still aren’t any highly effective vaccines that don’t require refrigeration, and why nasal and oral vaccination options are still lacking. “I’m worried that we’re prioritizing vaccine technology that may not necessarily be feasible to bring this pandemic to a close globally,” she said.
Highly effective vaccines are available right now, but researchers are continuing to investigate other platforms, Fauci said, such as looking at recombinant proteins with an adjuvant, that have been used in vaccines for other diseases and have less rigid storage requirements. Murkowski also shared that researchers working on newer forms of vaccines say they aren’t being prioritized.
FDA Acting Director Janet Woodcock said that there may be newer vaccines that do not require cold storage in the future. At the same time, manufacturers are also working on adapting current vaccines to “lyophilized formations” that don’t need to be refrigerated, and they’re also working on oral and nasal options. The “tried and true platforms” are easier to advance quickly in an emergency, but research on other vaccines is ongoing “and the FDA is not standing in the way of that development,” she added.
Testing was also a key discussion point at the hearing. Burr charged that the Biden administration had gotten “complacent” and let its “foot off the gas” by not purchasing enough of either tests or therapeutics. He said that his grandson had recently needed a COVID test after an exposure and found that tests were not easy to access. Even after his grandson took an at-home test, the school wouldn’t accept the results because a PCR test was required. Murray and other senators raised similar concerns.
Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Dawn O’Connell noted that officials there had invested $3 billion in the last 2 months to increase the production and supply of rapid point-of-care and at-home tests, with one-third of the funding focused solely on at-home tests. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) also recently launched a pilot program in federally qualified health centers to help mitigate access problems. “So, for those families that aren’t able to afford the test in the pharmacies, this would allow free access,” she said.
Woodcock added that FDA recently streamlined its approach to over-the-counter tests and has authorized 11 tests to date. Between the agency’s efforts and ASPR’s, “the supply should increase rapidly,” she said.
Shannon Firth has been reporting on health policy as MedPage Today’s Washington correspondent since 2014. She is also a member of the site’s Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team. Follow