The GOP's legal pushback against President Biden's vaccine mandates is limiting his efforts to get more people vaccinated in the face of the omicron variant.
A string of recent court rulings have halted both Biden's vaccine-or-test mandate for workers at businesses with 100 or more employees and his vaccine mandate for health workers.
Republican state officials have backed both court challenges and have celebrated the recent rulings in their favor, arguing Biden's mandates exceed his authority and infringe on people's freedom to make health decisions for themselves. Some GOP lawmakers are even pushing to block a government funding deal unless it defunds Biden's vaccine mandates.
But especially at a time when the new omicron variant potentially poses a heightened threat, many health experts say mandates are a key tool in getting more people vaccinated to tame the pandemic, and worry about the effects of efforts to fight them.
"These efforts are both irresponsible and they're serving as a barrier to getting people vaccinated," said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
About 17 percent of U.S. adults still have not received any shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. That remaining group of unvaccinated holdouts is in large part fueling the almost 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 occurring every day in the U.S.
Health officials also stress that getting more people vaccinated, and getting the vaccinated to get their booster shots, are key to blunting the threat from omicron.
But with Biden's mandates facing a tough battle ahead, and months of persuasion and incentives already having passed, it is unclear how many of the remaining holdouts can be moved.
Thirty deans of public health schools, among other experts, filed a court brief this week in support of Biden's vaccine-or-test mandate for workers, citing the omicron variant.
"The public health evidence has uniformly concluded that vaccines are the primary way to prevent the rise and spread of such variants, thereby protecting our nation's workplaces and workers," they wrote. "Because [the Biden administration's] vaccinate-or-test standard appropriately reflects this overwhelming scientific consensus, this Court should uphold it."
Republicans argue that the mandates are threatening unvaccinated people's jobs, and are infringing on their liberty and ability to choose for themselves.
"This is another victory for liberty," Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) said last month after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the employer vaccine-or-test mandate. "And emboldens our commitment to fight until America is finally free of these unconstitutional mandates."
Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, stressed that the party is not opposed to vaccinations, but rather against forcing people to get the shots through mandates.
"Like many Americans, Chairwoman McDaniel and Republican leaders are pro-vaccine and anti-mandate," she said. "You can both encourage folks to get vaccinated and protect themselves while supporting the rights of business owners and Americans to make their own health care decisions."
The GOP battle against vaccine mandates escalated on Wednesday, with some conservative Republicans like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) proposing to block a deal on funding the government unless enforcement of vaccine mandates is defunded.
The White House pushed back hard on those Republicans.
"These supporters of the former president are advocating for shutting the federal government down so that 20 percent of the public who are refusing to get vaccinated or tested can be free to infect their coworkers, our children, filling hospitals; that is what they are advocating for," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday.
She added that the White House is "confident" its mandates will ultimately be upheld in court. The appeals process is still playing out, and the employer vaccine-or-test requirement is not scheduled to take effect until Jan. 4.
The mandate for health care workers would have required first shots by Dec. 6, and to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.
Amid their fight against vaccine mandates, Republicans have also begun attacking Biden for not getting the pandemic under control.
"Joe Biden promised he would shut down the coronavirus," the Republican National Committee tweeted on Monday. "He failed."
Benjamin, of the American Public Health Association, noted that the Biden administration only turned to mandates once the vaccination effort started to hit a ceiling with the remaining holdouts.
"They tried to convince people and incentivize people," he said. "This was the next step in an effort to get people to be vaccinated."
Three GOP-appointed judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the vaccine-or-test mandate for workers exceeded the authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which issued it.
"Rather than a delicately handled scalpel, the Mandate is a one-size fits-all sledgehammer that makes hardly any attempt to account for differences in workplaces (and workers) that have more than a little bearing on workers' varying degrees of susceptibility to the supposedly 'grave danger' the Mandate purports to address," the court's opinion states.
The White House has pointed to evidence like the experience of Tyson Foods to show mandates work. The company had about 60,000 workers get the shots after it announced a vaccine requirement in August, bringing its vaccination rate to over 96 percent.
Some Republicans have veered from opposing only vaccine mandates into opposing vaccination itself, such as when attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the summer cheered a speaker celebrating a lower-than-expected vaccination rate.
Benjamin said vaccines are the best tool against COVID-19. As of September, CDC data shows unvaccinated people were six times more likely to test positive and 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people.
"It is the best preventive tool we have," Benjamin said. "When you have a miracle drug, why aren't we using it?"