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With FDA Approval Of Pfizer, More Employers May Require COVID Vaccinations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now that the Food and Drug Administration has granted full approval to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, President Biden wants more private employers to require their workers to get the shot.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If you're a business leader, a nonprofit leader, a state or local leader who has been waiting for full FDA approval to require vaccinations, I call on you now to do that. Require it.

KELLY: Hundreds of millions of COVID-19 shots have already been given out under emergency authorizations, but Pfizer is the first to obtain full approval from the FDA. NPR's Scott Horsley joins me to talk about what that could mean for employers and workers.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: So what does it mean? How does today's FDA action change the legal landscape for vaccine mandates?

HORSLEY: In strict legal terms, this is not necessarily a gamechanger. Federal courts had already ruled employers had the power to require vaccines, even under emergency authorization. And some employers, like United Airlines and the big meatpacker, Tyson, had already announced they were moving in that direction. But today's FDA action could certainly serve as another nudge for employers. I spoke with Brett Coburn, who is an employment lawyer in Atlanta. He says, earlier this year, a lot of employers were reluctant to impose vaccine requirements for fear they might drive workers away. But Coburn says that started changed last month when the CDC renewed its recommendation about wearing face masks indoors and when it started to become clear just how serious the threat from the delta variant might be.

BRETT COBURN: When that happened at the end of July, it was like a switch flipped. It's really been a sea change. And I think that the development today with the FDA approval for Pfizer, we're just going to see the momentum continue to gather.

HORSLEY: Coburn says he expects the FDA action will sway not only employers, but also some individuals, that now is the time to go ahead and get the shot.

KELLY: Well, and I guess we already saw a very quick reaction today from a huge employer, the U.S. military.

HORSLEY: That's right. Within hours of the FDA's announcement, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Defense Department will press ahead with plans to require vaccines for all members of the military.

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JOHN KIRBY: It's important to remind everyone that these efforts ensure the safety of our service members and promote the readiness of our force, not to mention the health and safety of the communities around the country in which we live.

HORSLEY: Now, before the FDA's action today, the Pentagon would've needed a waiver from the president to make COVID shots a requirement. And the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, had said he would seek a waiver, but now that won't be necessary. We also heard the governor of New Jersey come out after the FDA and said that all schoolteachers in that state and state employees will have to get vaccinated or get regular testing.

KELLY: Is there anything, Scott, to stop an employer? If they want to require vaccination, can they do it?

HORSLEY: You know, the state of Montana has actually outlawed vaccine requirements, and we could see similar moves in other GOP-controlled states. You know, unfortunately, this has become a very partisan issue.

KELLY: Yeah.

HORSLEY: I did mention that some employers were wary of imposing mandates early on for fear it might drive workers away in what is a pretty challenging labor market. But, you know, attorney Coburn says now that equation might be changing, and employers are thinking that people might quit if vaccines are not required.

COBURN: I think a lot of companies have just gotten to the point where they've said enough's enough. There are a lot of people who will feel much more comfortable coming back to work in a workplace where vaccines are required.

HORSLEY: Now, there are some caveats. Federal law does say an employer that requires vaccines has to make allowances for people who have a medical or religious reason not to get the shot.

KELLY: Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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