Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Texas has been at odds with the federal government over COVID-19 vaccine mandates since President Joe Biden first rolled out requirements in the fall.
The Biden administration has made vaccine mandates a flagship pandemic response measure, requiring shots for health care workers, federal contractors and the majority of federal workers.
Meanwhile, Texas has been staunchly against mandates, with top Republican leaders arguing vaccine orders are government overreach. Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in October banning any entity in the state from requiring the vaccine, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has launched or joined a slew of lawsuits against federal vaccine orders.
The battle over vaccine mandates reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which on Jan. 13 blocked a Biden administration rule ordering large businesses to require their employees to get vaccinated or get tested for COVID-19 regularly. In a separate ruling, the high court upheld another vaccine mandate targeted at health care workers in hospitals and nursing homes that receive federal funds.
The ongoing suits have left many Texas residents and employers unclear about who is required to get the vaccine. As litigation stands, health care workers and Texas Army National Guard members are currently required to follow through with federal vaccine mandates. Texas Army National Guard members could be discharged if they do not comply. A separate vaccine mandate from the Biden administration for federal contractors has come to halt due to challenges in a district court in Georgia.
Here is a breakdown of the lawsuits against the federal government’s vaccine mandates and who has to follow them in Texas.
A directive issued in November by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration required businesses with 100 or more employees to order their staff to either get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested for the virus every week.
Paxton joined several other states in a lawsuit against the Biden administration over the vaccine-or-test policy. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that the federal mandate could go into effect, reversing a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
The challenge ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court, which put an end to the mandate. The high court's conservative majority said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not have the power implement a vaccine-or-test requirement for large businesses.
“Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly," the court wrote.
Health care workers
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued a vaccine mandate in November for health care workers at Medicare- and Medicaid-certified facilities.
On Jan. 13, the Supreme Court said the federal mandate for health care workers could be enforced.
Previously, Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk in the Northern District of Texas granted a preliminary injunction and temporarily halted Biden’s vaccine mandate for health care workers.
A September executive order from Biden required federal contractors and subcontractors to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
That vaccine mandate is currently not in effect. A federal judge in Georgia granted a nationwide injunction in December, prohibiting the federal government from enforcing the mandate. U.S. District Court Judge R. Stan Baker, appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote that Biden exceeded his authority and that the mandate imposed an “extreme economic burden” on contractors.
An appeals court in December declined a Justice Department request to reinstate the federal contractor mandate.
Several Texas-based employers, including Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin, initially complied with the mandate for federal contractors and subcontractors but dropped it after it was blocked.
A federal judge in Texas has blocked the White House from requiring federal employees to get the vaccine.
Biden mandated about 3.5 million workers to get vaccinated by Nov. 22, or provide a religious or medical exemption. Judge Jeffrey Brown of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas issued a preliminary injunction on Jan. 21, halting the federal government from enforcing the requirement.
Brown wrote that the case, filed by the group Feds for Medical Freedom, is not about the merits of vaccination but about the president's authority and whether he has the ability to, "without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment." Brown wrote that Biden's executive order went "a bridge too far."
The Department of Justice is appealing the decision.
During a Jan. 21 news conference, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said currently about 98% of federal workers are vaccinated and that the Biden administration was "confident in (their) legal authority."
National Guard members
Soldiers in the National Guard and in the regular army who do not get the vaccine could be discharged. Under a Wednesday directive from U.S. Secretary of Army Christine E. Wormuth, commanders should begin "involuntary administrative separation proceedings" if any troops have refused to comply with the vaccine order.
Guardsmen are required under federal law to get the shot, but Abbott has previously said Texas National Guard soldiers won’t be punished if they do not follow the vaccine mandate.
“I have issued a straightforward order to every member of the Texas National Guard within my chain of command: Do not punish any guardsman for choosing not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” Abbott wrote in a Jan. 4 letter to Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the Texas National Guard’s top military leader. “And as long as I am your commander-in-chief, I will not tolerate efforts to compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine.”
In another fight over vaccine policies, Abbott sued the Biden administration on Jan. 14 for requiring all Texas Army National Guard members to get the shot.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.