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Coronavirus Roundup: Biden’s Vaccine Rules Get Their Day in (Supreme) Court 

There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the temporary blocking of the federal contractor COVID-19 vaccine mandate in three states. This was the first time a federal appellate court considered the challenge. 

“If the president can order medical interventions in the name of reducing absenteeism, what is the logical stopping point of that power?” wrote Judge John Bush in the court’s opinion. “Even vaccinated employees may contract the flu (or COVID-19) at family gatherings, concerts, sporting events, and so on…Such off the-job conduct very well may threaten to cause on-the-job absenteeism. So why, if the government’s interpretation is correct, does the Property Act not confer a de facto police power upon the president to dictate the terms and conditions of one-fifth of our workforce’s lives? The government has never reckoned with the implications of its position or proposed any limiting principle to allay our concerns.” 

This is one of several ongoing cases related to the mandate. There is also a nationwide injunction on the mandate imposed by a Georgia federal judge. That ruling “has been appealed by the Justice Department to the Federal Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit,” Meritalk noted. Here are some of the other recent headlines you might have missed. 

The Supreme Court is holding special hearings on Friday to consider challenges to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine rule for private business and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ vaccine mandate for health care workers. Live audio is available here

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that adolescents ages 12 to 17 get a Pfizer/BioNTech booster shot. Currently the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is the only one approved for that age group.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration shortened the interval between the initial primary dose of the Moderna vaccine and booster shot from six to five months, which CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing call on Friday she signed off on. This “brings consistency in the timing for administration of a booster dose among the available mRNA vaccines,” said Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, in a statement. 

Walensky said the definition of “fully vaccinated” is “not changing” to include booster shots when a reporter during a briefing on Wednesday asked if there could be prohibitions down the line for federal employment or travel. “But consistent with how public health has historically viewed or even talked about how we recommend vaccines, we are now recommending that individuals stay up to date with additional doses that they are eligible for.”

During the same briefing a reporter asked why several of the FDA’s COVID-19 related recommendations have happened since November without consultation of its advisory committee. Jeff Zients, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, deferred to the FDA, which did not have representation at the briefing and then tossed to Walensky to speak about the CDC’s experience. 

The Navy ousted its first two sailors for refusing to get vaccinated, Navy Times reported on Wednesday. They “were all completing initial training periods within their first 180 days of active duty at the time of separation, meaning they were considered entry level separations, according to the Navy,” said the report. The Navy hasn’t granted any religious exemptions to the mandate yet, and “a federal judge in Texas issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Navy from penalizing 35 Navy SEALs and other special forces members for rejecting the COVID-19 vaccine due to religious reasons.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked during the briefing on Thursday about three recent articles in The Journal of the American Medical Association that six Biden former advisory board members from the Biden health transition team wrote calling for a new coronavirus strategy that embraces the “new normal” of living with the virus with no end in sight. Psaki said she hadn’t read them yet and didn’t believe the president had either. 

One of the suggestions in the articles is that vaccine mandates are expanded, such as for school children. When asked if more mandates could be coming, Psaki said it “will always be up to local school districts in terms of what steps need to be taken.” 

Also on vaccine mandates, Psaki was asked if vaccine mandates for domestic air travel have been considered in order to reduce incidents by unruly passengers, which have spiked in relation to the mask requirement. “I have not heard that explanation or argument being made by our health and medical experts,” said Psaki. “I would—I may point you to the [Federal Aviation Administration] or the [Transportation Department] if they think that is a relevant argument.”

There have been an increasing number of COVID-19 infections reported by State Department employees working in the Harry S. Truman building and other department facilities in Washington, D.C, Politico reported on Thursday based on an internal memo it obtained. “Some of the infections reported and made public to State employees this week date back to the third week of December, the memo said,” Politico reported. “Most staffers are currently working from home.” 

“The holidays and max telework posture means that many of these cases were reported by people who had not been onsite or in the workplace before onset of symptoms or positive test,” a State spokesman told Politico. The spokesperson also said there have not been any super-spreader events at the Harry S. Truman building.

The Justice Department’s overall compliance with the federal vaccine mandate was 99% and individual department entities had compliance rates of 97% or above, as of December 21, the department told Government Executive. The overall vaccination rate for the department was 90.8% as of December 21 and its entities’ rates ranged from 82% to 99%

For example, The Federal Bureau of Prisons has a 97% compliance rate with the vaccine mandate and 82.5% of staff were vaccinated as of December 21, the agency told Government Executive. 

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