With Republicans back in the majority, the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 31 passed a series of bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines.
The GOP majority in the lower chamber took up two COVID-19 bills on Tuesday, with many others still on the docket for possible consideration later this year.
The first bill would officially declare an end to the public health emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second bill would end the vaccine mandate for health care workers at institutions that receive federal funding.
During the 117th Congress, the Democrat majority in both chambers largely marched in lockstep with President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 policies, including vaccine mandates.
Republicans, on the other hand, have pointed to the low risk the virus poses to younger people and those without pre-existing health conditions. Many Republicans opposed vaccine mandates as a violation of Americans’ rights to choose which drugs they put into their bodies.
Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said the two bills being considered will “restore our constitutional rights and freedoms after two long years of Democrats COVID-19 power grab policies.”
In many places, Americans found themselves effectively barred from leaving their homes amid mandatory lockdowns, which in turn caused substantial mental health and socialization issues among young adults and children.
“The extended COVID lockdowns like the ones we saw in my home state of New York caused irreparable damage to our children’s development, financial strain on our small businesses and unnecessary deaths among our most vulnerable seniors,” Stefanik said.
Freedom for Health Care Workers Act
The bill passed by Republicans, the first in a round of two expected votes, would end a federal vaccine mandate for health care workers at facilities that receive federal funding.
The bill passed in a 227–203 vote, including 7 Democrats supporting the measure.
Biden announced the health care mandate as part of a larger declaration announcing vaccine mandates for all federal civilian and military personnel. Many Americans, including those with significant reservations about the novel vaccine, which has not undergone long-term testing, were faced with the choice to take the jab or lose their jobs.
In an interview with The Epoch Times, Lt. Col. Adam Conrad, who asked that his name be changed to protect him from retribution by the Department of Defense, described the effects of this mandate on servicemembers.
“I’ve never seen morale so low,” he said.
While federal employees were targeted most by Biden’s mandates, private institutions, hospitals, and clinics that received federal funding were also subject to the mandates. In this case, the mandates came not from the president but from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The CMS mandate, which doesn’t allow a testing opt-out, covers more than 17 million health care workers.
Guidelines on the CMS website read: “[Health care] staff must be fully vaccinated (with the exception of those who have been granted exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine or for those staff for whom the COVID-19 vaccination must be temporarily delayed, as recommended by CDC).”
In January 2022, the Supreme Court declined to strike down the vaccine requirement for health care workers, while at the same time agreeing to strike down a business mandate.
The Freedom for Health Care Workers Act would roll back this mandate on health care workers.
“All of us rightfully were applauding our frontline heroes, applauding all those health care workers who was showing up treating COVID patients,” Scalise said of the bill.
“And then you saw this administration—while they started applauding them—ultimately, they said that they would have to be fired if they didn’t get the COVID vaccine.
“Workers were forced to lose their jobs over that vaccine mandate that wasn’t even in law. It was a ruling that came out of [the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services]. Let’s get those health care workers back to work,” Scalise said. “Let’s continue as the heroes that they are not tried to shame them, or terminate their careers, because they didn’t get vaccinated from COVID.”
The ‘Pandemic Is Over’ Act
One of the bills, whose name is taken from Biden’s declaration that “the pandemic is over,” is H.R. 382, the “Pandemic Is Over” Act. The House passed the bill in a party-line 220 to 210 vote. Four lawmakers did not vote.
The bill would end the declared public health emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) proposed ending the emergency declaration, putting pressure on the Biden administration to rescind the measure. After Republicans announced their intention to consider the bill, Biden announced that he would end the public health emergency, but said he would wait until May to do so.
In a speech on the House floor calling for the passage of his bill, Guthrie said, “President Biden and I agree: the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”
“It’s time to restore freedom to the American people, so the American people—not the government—can make the best decisions for themselves and their families,” Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) said in favor of the legislation in a speech on the House floor.
On Jan. 11, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) confirmed that it would again extend the health emergency for another 90 days, according to a declaration issued by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. The emergency has been renewed about a dozen times since it was implemented under the Trump administration in early 2020.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is over,” Guthrie wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “It’s long overdue to end the COVID-19 [public health emergency] and for President Biden to relinquish his emergency powers.”
The bill, titled the “Pandemic Is Over Act,” stipulates that HHS “shall terminate on the date of enactment of this Act.” About three months ago, Biden told a “60 Minutes” reporter that he believes “the pandemic is over,” prompting White House officials to scramble to clarify his stance.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) called on Biden to speed up the timeline to end the public health emergency, noting that H.R. 382 would take effect immediately rather than in several months.
“Mr. President, you know it’s the right thing to do,” Scalise said. “Don’t wait until May. Let’s open our country back up again, get our economy back up again.”
‘The Show Up’ Act
Republicans also hope to take aim at the growth of work-from-home arrangements for federal employees.
Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many federal bodies altered their work protocols to allow people to work from home. However, despite the regression of the virus from the public eye, many of these arrangements remain in place.
“The Show Up” Act, introduced on Jan. 11 by Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) and cosponsored by Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), and Michael Cloud (R-Texas).
“Washington shouldn’t be the last place to get to work,” Scalise said during a Jan. 31 press conference. “It should be the first.”
“For years, Americans have suffered from the federal government’s detrimental pandemic-era telework policies for federal bureaucrats. President Biden’s unnecessary expansion of telework crippled the ability of departments and agencies to fulfill their responsibilities and created cumbersome backlogs,” Comer said in a press statement about the bill.
Democrats Make Contested Claims About Vaccines
In their response to Republicans, Democrats made contested claims about the COVID-19 vaccine, including claims that it is substantially effective in slowing or preventing transmission of the disease.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) described the vaccine as effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and reducing the risk of hospitalization or death. Thus, Democrats expressed opposition to Republicans’ plans to overturn vaccine mandates and end the public health emergency.
Responding to several GOP criticisms of the vaccine as ineffective, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who led the Democrat side of the debate, said these claims are “factually untrue.”
However, the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, while initially trumpeted as being as high as 100 percent, rapidly declines substantially over time, studies show.
As early as May 2021, studies began to show that the effectiveness of the drug in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 had dropped to 33 percent.
Later the same year, data from Qatar—which has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world—showed that while the vaccine was initially as much as 80 percent effective, six months later, that effectiveness dropped to only 20 percent.
Researchers wrote, “[the vaccine’s] effectiveness against any SARS-CoV-2 infection was negligible in the first 2 weeks after the first dose. It increased to 36.8 percent … in the third week after the first dose and reached its peak at 77.5 percent … in the first month after the second dose.
However, they found that “[Its effectiveness] declined gradually thereafter, with the decline accelerating after the fourth month to reach approximately 20 percent in months 5 through 7 after the second dose.”
The bill will now head to the Senate, where it is likely to face a greater challenge than it did in the House.
Democrats are likely to oppose the measure. Like all bills in the upper chamber, it will need the support of at least 60 senators, meaning at least 11 Democrats and all 49 Republicans.
If the bill were to pass Congress, it’s unlikely that it would win the White House’s approval.
Jack Phillips and Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.