With the nation's top public health officials as their audience, Senate Republicans on Thursday aired complaints about a new wide-reaching vaccine mandate for large businesses being implemented by the Biden administration.
"I'm just telling you it's a hard sell to tell people who have had COVID that they're now under a mandate -- a mandate by the federal government -- to be vaccinated. I think you've got an extremely tough sell," Sen. Richard Burr, the top Republican on the Senate Health Committee, told the heads of the Biden White House COVID response team, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, in a hearing.
The new mandate, announced in September but finalized Thursday, will apply to nearly 100 million U.S. workers and require them to either get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID tests. The mandate will take effect on Jan. 4, after the holidays.
Both Fauci and Walensky were supportive of the mandate, pointing to 745,000 American deaths and thousands more each week, the vast majority of which are among the unvaccinated.
Burr was one of several Republicans who made the case during the hearing that unvaccinated Americans who have had COVID-19 should be exempt from the new mandate because they would now have "natural" immunity to the virus, an argument made by business organizations that oppose the mandate.
While studies have shown that people still carry immune response to the virus after recovery, it's not clear how long that immunity lasts and it doesn't appear to be as robust as immunity from vaccination. One recent CDC study found that people with "natural" immunity through infection were five times more likely to develop COVID-19 compared to people who were fully vaccinated, something Wallensky and Fauci pointed out.
Still, Burr argued that health care professionals were already suffering from worker shortages and couldn't afford to lose more people because they refused to comply with mandates. Under the mandate for health care workers, which applies to any place receiving federal funding through Medicare or Medicaid, workers are required to get vaccinated without an option to do weekly tests instead.
"You start doing this to people, Medicare, Medicaid providers, community health centers, we're not going to have the people to surge," Burr said, referring to surge responses to states that need more doctors and nurses when COVID cases spike.
He called the decision not to allow for "natural" immunity qualifiers "confusing."
"There's every reason to believe that people can look at this and say, 'What the hell are you guys doing? What are you judging this based on?' It's not common sense and it's certainly not science."
Walensky said the data on how natural immunity lasts is "murkier" but the CDC can track with certainty how long vaccines work, and referenced the recent study showing more infections in people who have had COVID than in those who are vaccinated.
"CDC recommendations suggest that you have more both more durable and robust and known immune response if you are vaccinated after you've been previously infected, and those are our recommendation," Walensky said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, also told the public health officials that she was worried about worker shortages.
"When we're talking about vaccine and vaccine hesitancy, we need to be talking to those who are putting in place some of these standards that in my state are causing an extraordinary issue and problem within our workforce," Murkowski said.
Both Fauci and Walensky defended the mandates, which the Biden administration hopes will stifle COVID cases that have disrupted everything from education systems to supply chain and the economy.
"We've had 745,000 deaths from this disease and we're continuing to have about 75,000 cases every single day," Walensky said.
"We know the most disruptive thing in our workforce is to have a COVID outbreak and to have workers in that workforce come down with COVID infection, severe disease, and in some cases death. Vaccination as we've seen, decreases your risk of infection by sixfold, decreases your risk of hospitalization and death by tenfold even during this delta surge. So there's absolutely a public health priority to get people vaccinated and to continue the important prevention and mitigation strategies including masking to keep them safe," she said.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, asked Fauci, "If we do have a mandate, will it save lives? And is there an estimate of, of the number of lives that might be saved by virtue of having our private companies that have over 100 employees, either having their employees receive a vaccination or get a weekly test? If that occurs, will it save lives and you have an estimate of the number of lives that might save?"
Fauci said he did not have a model on hand, but had "a very firm and confident answer" to the first question.
"We know that vaccines absolutely save lives. And we know that mandates work," he said.