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Supreme Court conservatives undermine Biden's vaccine policy

The more Biden tries to contain the Covid crisis, the more he's forced to confront Republican opposition — including from Republican-appointed justices.

The contradiction is unsubtle. On the one hand, Republicans insist that President Joe Biden and his administration contain the Covid-19 crisis and end the pandemic. On the other hand, many of those same Republicans are too often relentless in trying to prevent the White House from doing exactly that.

It's a multifaceted strategy that includes trying to gut the Biden administration's vaccine policies, filing lawsuits to block implementation of Biden's policies, and in some red states, effectively paying people not to get vaccinated. At the same time, many Republicans are undermining public confidence in vaccines and mask protections, while promoting ineffective treatments and dangerous ideas about "natural immunity."

And then, of course, there are the Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court taking a side. NBC News reported this afternoon:

The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration's rule requiring larger businesses to ensure that workers receive the Covid vaccine or wear masks and get tested on a weekly basis.... The workplace rule, announced last fall by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, required companies with 100 or more employees to ensure that their workers either get vaccinated or wear masks and show negative Covid test results at least once a week.

By most standards, this was less controversial than the right made it out to be. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for, among other things, creating workplace safeguards to ensure workers don't get hurt on the job.

As far as the White House was concerned, if OSHA can require construction workers to wear hard hats to prevent serious injuries, the agency has the same authority to require vaccinations for the same reason. Legal experts generally assumed the administration's position would prevail.

It didn't. In their 6-3 ruling, the Republican-appointed justices concluded that the viral contagion that's killed nearly 850,000 Americans is not really an "occupational hazard," since people can contract the virus outside of workplaces.

Of course, by that reasoning, workplaces with asbestos don't necessarily create occupational hazards, either, since people might also be exposed asbestos elsewhere.

As NBC News' report added, the three center-left justices dissented, concluded that OSHA was well within its authority and expertise to impose the mandates, unlike the court.

"Underlying everything else in this dispute is a single, simple question: Who decides how much protection, and of what kind, American workers need from COVID–19?" the dissenters asked. "An agency with expertise in workplace health and safety, acting as Congress and the President authorized? Or a court, lacking any knowledge of how to safeguard workplaces, and insulated from responsibility for any damage it causes?"

The trio argued, "Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies."

They added, "In the face of a still-raging pandemic, this court tells the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all the workplaces needed," the justices wrote. "As disease and death continue to mount, this court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible. Without legal basis, the court usurps a decision that rightfully belongs to others. It undercuts the capacity of the responsible federal officials, acting well within the scope of their authority, to protect American workers from grave danger."

The OSHA policy would've covered nearly 80 million American workers, and by the administration's estimates, the rule was poised to save over 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations in the next six months.

Thanks to the increasingly radicalized high court, that policy no longer exists. It will almost certainly extend the duration of the public health crisis.

That said, today was not a total loss for public health advocates. In a separate ruling, the Supreme Court said the administration's mandate requiring vaccinations for an estimated 20 million health care workers can be enforced.

This was a 5-4 ruling, with Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett dissenting.

The fact that there were four justices who were prepared to block this policy, too, is a reminder of just how far to the right much of the court has gone.