What to know about Biden’s 3 COVID vaccine mandates

a person holds a Covid-19 vaccination record card
Retired chemistry teacher David Boyd holds up his COVID-19 vaccination card. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska is among more than two dozen Republican-led states that filed lawsuits Friday to challenge the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large employers.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because a week prior Alaska was among a group of states that sued to challenge a different Biden administration vaccine mandate. Yes, it is a bit confusing.

Alaska Public Media’s Washington Correspondent Liz Ruskin breaks it down.

Listen here:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Casey Grove: Liz, help us out. Why are there multiple mandates and multiple lawsuits?

Liz Ruskin: President Biden has actually issued three vaccine mandates. They cover different groups of workers, and they don’t cover everyone. Let’s start with the one that applies to large employers.

CG: OK. What’s a large employer and is there a testing alternative?

LR: The rule says private companies with more than 100 workers have to either impose a vaccine requirement, or require unvaccinated employees to test weekly and wear face masks. It’s an OSHA rule — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The rule was just published, so we now know the deadline is Jan. 4 for vaccination. 

CG: Does the mandate apply to employees who are working from home?

LR: No, it does not. A government fact sheet says the mandate doesn’t apply to employees when they are working from home — or to employees who work exclusively outdoors or alone. 

RELATED: Appeals court temporarily halts Biden vaccine mandate for larger businesses

CG: So that’s the mandate for large employers. What other vaccine mandates are there?

LR: There’s one that applies to federal contractors. This is interesting because federal contractor is defined really broadly. It’s not just, say, an Alaska Native corporation subsidiary that supplies security guards to a federal building. The Alaska Railroad got a letter saying the mandate applies there because of a warehouse it leases to the U.S. Forest Service. The University of Alaska Fairbanks is a federal contractor because of its research contracts. The state Department of Corrections is a federal contractor because it houses federal prisoners. But the state, as you said, is in a lawsuit challenging that, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy has issued an administrative order essentially saying state employees can’t help impose a federal vaccine mandate.

CG: And that one does not have a testing option, right?

LR: Right. The vaccine mandate for federal contractors has no option of weekly testing instead of vaccination. It allows limited exemptions for disability and certain religious beliefs. And the deadline for federal contractors was moved to Jan. 4. 

CG: And there’s one more mandate?

LR: Yes, health care workers. There’s a rule that says hospitals and nursing homes that get funds from Medicare and Medicaid have to impose a vaccine mandate. No testing option, and the deadline is also Jan. 4.

CG: What are the state’s chances of overturning these mandates?

LR: It’s really hard to say. Some authorities I’ve talked to say that depends on a lot of details — what exemptions are available, like for people who are allergic to vaccines and for some reason can’t wear masks. I’ve heard some experts say the one that applies to private employers is the shakiest. Others say that one is solid because it’s an OSHA rule, and worker safety is definitely at stake.

(An update: A federal appeals court in Louisiana on Saturday temporarily suspended the mandate for large employers.)

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.