In his 200th press briefing since the pandemic began in Arkansas and on a day in which 36 more COVID-19 deaths were reported, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday (Sept. 14) clarified his opposition to President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates, saying mandates on businesses will “increase vaccine hesitancy.”
President Biden on Sept. 9 unveiled a plan the White House hopes will result in more vaccinations to combat the summer surge in cases and deaths resulting from the Delta variant of COVID. Most opposition to the mandate, especially from Republicans, is with a proposal to require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is working to draft the vaccine mandate rules.
Gov. Hutchinson presented five points about his position on vaccine mandates:
• I support the authority of the states to require vaccines in the educational environment and in other environments based upon the needs of the state.
• I support the freedom of businesses to mandate vaccines in the workplace and this freedom should not be prohibited by the state.
• I recognize the authority of the federal government to require vaccines of military and federal employees.
• I do not support the strategy of a broad federal mandate for businesses with over 100 employees to require all employees to be vaccinated. This is not consistent with historical use of federal authority in public health matters. It is counter-productive and will increase vaccine hesitancy.
• I continue to advocate for every eligible person to be vaccinated.
A reporter questioned Gov. Hutchinson as to how he can support vaccine mandates for schools, but Arkansas now has a law preventing such mandates. Gov. Hutchinson said the state does have the authority but he believes the strategy of soliciting community support is better than a mandate.
“Even though the state has that authority historically, it’s not something that should be utilized now. Our strategy is the right one for now, which is to educate, is to encourage, and to solicit the support of the communities to increase the vaccination rates. And that’s been proven successful. I know everybody would like to see it go up at a quicker pace, but it’s moving in that direction,” he said.
Also in response to a media question, Gov. Hutchinson said “now is not the time” to put criteria on what might cause him to recommend a vaccine mandate for school faculty and staff. But he did not rule it out, saying “an effective leader is not going to foreclose reasonable opportunities.”
When asked about a possible legal challenge from Arkansas to President Biden’s employer mandate, Gov. Hutchinson said that will likely come from state attorneys general. He said OSHA has yet to issue details on the mandate, so he is not yet sure of the “right strategy” to legally challenge the mandate.
There are a wide range of opinions on the constitutionality of Biden’s mandate on businesses, although OSHA has in the past implemented broad mandates on private businesses related to workplace safety and worker health. A survey by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that 28% of American workers won’t get a vaccine even if it means they lose a job.
“Employers are moving toward mandatory vaccination policies at great speed. Those that are not mandating vaccines are considering whether they can implement premium differentials in their health plans to penalize employees who won’t get the vaccine. Wellness regulations currently permit incentives and penalties for taking legitimate health-related steps, so a COVID-19 vaccination incentive should be permissible. I would expect that the Biden administration would move to help employers by explicitly issuing guidance to permit these incentives,” Kathryn Bakich, senior vice president at employee benefits consulting firm Segal in Washington, D.C., noted in this SHRM report.
Also on Tuesday, the Arkansas Department of Health reported 1,544 new cases, bringing the cumulative total to 477,191. Active cases fell by 737 to 17,084, and reported deaths rose by 36 to 7,334. Hospitalizations declined by 16 to 1,097, and COVID patients on ventilators fell by five to 281. Gov. Hutchinson again noted during the briefing that deaths reported each day are rarely all from the previous 24 hours because of the process required to verify deaths, record death certificates, and other factors.
On a positive note, Gov. Hutchinson and Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero reported that treatment of COVID patients with monoclonal antibodies – mass-produced antibodies designed to recognize and help the immune system defeat the COVID virus – has risen from 14 units in late June to 2,630 units in September. Romero said timely treatment with the antibodies shows a 70% to 85% reduction in hospitalizations.