Privatizing Public Health

The Atlantic has an article by Wendy Parmet titled Employers’ Vaccine Mandates Are Representative of America’s Failed Approach to Public Health. As people discuss mandating covid vaccines, the next question is, who will do the mandating? The government or employers? And right now it looks like we’ll be falling back on employers.

Although important legal questions and limits remain—such as whether vaccines that have received only emergency-use authorization, rather than full FDA approval, can be mandated—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recent guidance assumes that employers can require, subject to limitations established by the Americans With Disabilities Act and Title VII, that their workers be vaccinated. This comports with the long-standing view that employers, especially in nonunionized workplaces, have broad power to set the terms and conditions of employment, including requirements that their employees be vaccinated. Doing so might be just the trick to overcoming people’s resistance. Although many Americans rebel when the government tells them what to do, they can, for obvious reasons, be quite acquiescent to the dictates of their employers.

Already some employers are offering bonuses to employees to get vaccinated, which I’m fine with. I understand there’s a real problem with nursing home staff refusing to get vaccinated, and IMO state health departments need to mandate vaccines asap.

Keep in mind that a big problem with U.S. nursing homes is that, while there may need to be a Registered Nurse on duty at all times, most of the staff are either Licensed Practical Nurses — high school graduates with one year of nurse’s training — or Certified Nursing Assistants — high school graduates with four months of training. Depending on the state, there may be more CNAs than anything else, and while they may be very good at helping residents with bathing and other functions, they don’t necessarily know science from salsa. So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that staffers are afraid of the vaccine.

Wendy Parmet’s larger point is that the pandemic is showing us how much public health has been privatized in the U.S. And this is not working.

Unquestionably, the private sector has a role to play in public health—just look at the private companies that produced the vaccines and the private hospitals that have cared for the ill. But to rely on it to protect the public’s health is pure folly. As the pandemic has shown only too well, private and public interests do not always align. Before COVID-19, for example, hospitals focused on their bottom line and failed to stock up on personal protective gear or extra ventilators, even though they knew a pandemic could strike. Once one did, competitive pressures also pushed many businesses, such as restaurants and meatpacking plants, to stay open and overlook the health of their employees and communities, even as they became sources of infection. To depend now on the private sector to increase vaccination rates would further underscore America’s tepid commitment to the basic principles of public health.

This goes along with our insane religious faith in “free markets” to provide for everyone’s needs. It doesn’t work, folks. But the other point, IMO, is that people who don’t like being told what to do are just trading one authority for another. If the government doesn’t make them get vaccinated, their employers probably will sooner or later. I believe that eventually covid vaccinations are going to be required before any of us can do much of anything — hold a job, go to school, travel — and if government doesn’t enforce it, the private sector will step in. And the private sector is much less democratic than government.

What else can I say but … go Chiefs.