Republicans Assail Vaccine and Mandates With Misleading Claims

WASHINGTON — As the House debated for hours over pandemic measures, Republican lawmakers on Tuesday repeatedly misled about the efficacy of vaccines, the rationale behind vaccine mandates and their effects.

T‌wo measures, ‌introduced by Republicans, would end a vaccine mandate‌‌ for ‌certain health care workers as well as the public health emergency declared at the start of the pandemic. The House‌ ‌approved the two ‌bills, largely along party lines, on Tuesday‌. Still, they do not have the votes to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, let alone receive approval from President Biden.

Here’s a fact check of some of their remarks.

What Was Said

“Dr. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, said in August 2021, quote, ‘What they can’t do’ — they being the vaccines — ‘What they can’t do anymore is prevent transmission.’ The C.D.C.’s own website says right now the vaccine does nothing for transmission. Zero. Yet that was the whole basis of the vaccine mandate.”
— Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas

This is misleading. Mr. Roy is referring to — and cherry-picking — comments made by Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about the agency’s guidance on Covid-19 vaccines as well as the rationale behind the vaccine mandates for federal workers and certain health care professionals.

In August 2021, when a surge in coronavirus cases caused by the more infectious Delta variant prompted the C.D.C. to encourage wearing masks in public again, Dr. Walensky appeared on CNN to explain the updated guidance.

Asked about “breakthrough cases” — fully vaccinated people who nonetheless catch the virus — Dr. Walensky stressed the importance of inoculation despite the fact that the vaccines did not appear to prevent breakthrough infections.

“Our vaccines are working exceptionally well. They continue to work well for Delta. With regard to severe illness and death, they prevent it,” she said. “But what they can’t do anymore is prevent transmission.”

A Divided Congress

The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.

  • Matt Gaetz: The far-right congressman’s role in recent House melodrama has only entrenched his stature as a political arsonist. But House G.O.P. leaders say, begrudgingly, that he’s also now a lawmaker with new powers.
  • An Act of Retribution: Speaker Kevin McCarthy ejected Representatives Adam B. Schiff and Eric Swalwell from the House Intelligence Committee, making good on a longstanding threat to expel the California Democrats.
  • Trump Allies Win Key Seats: Some of the former president’s most outspoken defenders will sit on the House’s main investigative committee, underscoring their high-profile roles in the new Republican majority.
  • ‘Reid Machine’ Rolls On: Top aides to Harry Reid, the relentless former Senate majority leader who died in 2021, helped Democrats win crucial Senate seats and are now scattered through the party apparatus.

Jason McDonald, a spokesman for Dr. Walensky, noted that at the time of her remarks, the agency was still studying the effectiveness of vaccines against the Delta variant.

But, he added, “at no point did Dr. Walensky say or suggest that vaccines are no longer effective or unnecessary, and to suggest otherwise is misleading.”

A few weeks after Dr. Walensky spoke, the C.D.C. released a study that found that the vaccines were still 66 percent effective in preventing infections from the Delta variant, a decrease from the 91 percent rate before that variant became dominant.

Dr. Walensky’s comments were in line with guidance from other public health officials and experts. Research at the time of Delta’s surge showed that unvaccinated people were still more likely to contract and spread the disease, despite some breakthrough infections among vaccinated people.

Mr. Biden’s executive order, issued in September 2021, requiring vaccination for all federal workers noted that vaccines are “the best way to slow the spread of Covid-19 and to prevent infection by the Delta variant or other variants.” But it did not claim that the vaccine was completely effective in stopping transmission.

Rather, the executive order noted that vaccines “significantly reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and death” and help decrease, but not eliminate,infections.

Similarly, the Biden administration issued a regulation in November 2021 requiring vaccination for workers at health care facilities that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. That regulation noted that vaccination can reduce transmission, but also reduce “associated morbidity and mortality across providers and communities” and the risk to both health care workers and patients alike. (The regulation is tied up in the courts.)

The C.D.C.’s website still strongly encourages vaccinations, including booster shots, against Covid-19. One page explains that “vaccination remains the safest strategy for avoiding hospitalizations, long-term health outcomes, and death.” Another page debunking “myths” also noted that “high vaccination coverage in a population reduces the spread of the virus and helps prevent new variants from emerging.” And the latest data from the C.D.C. shows those with updated booster shots as 12 times less likely to die from Covid-19 than the unvaccinated and three times less likely to contract a case.

What Was Said

“The next lie: that vaccines can’t cause any harm.”
— Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky

This is misleading. Mr. Massie said a vaccine mandate for health care workers was “predicated on lies,” including what he described as a claim that vaccines have no side effects or adverse reactions. But no such claim was ever made.

Contrary to Mr. Massie’s claim that the mandate promised that the vaccines would cause zero side effects, the November 2021 regulation clearly stated that such effects were possible.

In fact, part of the initial draft of the regulation required facilities to support vaccination by “providing reasonable time and paid leave for employees to receive vaccines and recover from side effects.”

It also stated that “side effects following vaccinations often include swelling, redness, and pain at the injection site; flu-like symptoms; headache; and nausea; all typically of short duration.” It also acknowledged the possibility of “serious adverse reactions” but noted correctly that these are rare.

Still, the government has said, the benefits of vaccination in preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death outweigh the possible risks. And hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received Covid shots.

A completed memorandum, released in October, outlined how different facilities should comply with the rule and provided exemptions for medical and religious reasons.

What Was Said

“We have a severe shortage of health care workers, many of whom were heroes that worked on the front lines, saving lives throughout this pandemic who have said they don’t want a vaccine. They do not want to take it. They want to trust their own natural immunity.”
— Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia

This is misleading. The medical industry and research has long warned that the number of health care workers was not keeping up with demand for health care, even before the pandemic began. While the pandemic certainly exacerbated those labor shortages and the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates spurred some resignations, the mandates do not appear to have been a major factor in the shortage.

A May 2022 report from the Department of Health and Human Services noted that even before the pandemic, burnout, exhaustion and mental health concerns were “significant problems” for health care workers. The pandemic put additional stress on workers and exposed them to the disease.

Mr. Biden’s vaccine mandate for health care facilities that received federal funding led to reports of additional staffing losses. But employment figures overall have not experienced a drastic shift, with hospitals across the United States employing 5,121,50 workers in September 2021 (when the mandate was announced), 5,137,600 in March 2022 (the deadline for compliance) and 5,279,300 in December 2022 (the latest month of available data).

The industry website Fierce Healthcare listed about five dozen hospitals across the country that had announced departures, suspensions or resignations typically ranging from less than 1 percent to 5 percent of their work force. In a May 2022 analysis of government data on nursing facilities, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “the vaccine mandate has not exacerbated staffing shortages to the extent initially hypothesized since shortages have actually fallen nationally since January 2022.”

Additionally, Ms. Greene’s reference to natural immunity could misleadingly suggest that being infected by Covid-19 negates the need to get vaccinated. While recent infection can provide protection, experts still recommend vaccination for more complete protection.

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