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US intelligence officers face sacking for refusing Covid vaccine


Some agencies in the 18-member intelligence community had as much as 40% of their workforce unvaccinated

Thousands of intelligence officers risk being fired for failing to obey the US government’s vaccine mandate as some Republican lawmakers raise concerns about removing such employees from agencies vital to national security.

Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that several intelligence agencies had at least 20% of their workforce unvaccinated as of late October.

Some agencies in the 18-member intelligence community had as much as 40% of their workforce unvaccinated, Stewart said, citing information the administration has provided to the committee but not released publicly.

He declined to identify the agencies because full information on vaccination rates was classified.

Read more: Saudi approves Pfizer’s vaccine for age group 5-11

While many people will likely still get vaccinated before the administration’s Nov. 22 deadline for civilian workers, resistance to the mandate could leave major agencies responsible for national security without some personnel. Intelligence officers are particularly hard to replace due to the highly specialised work they do and the difficulties of completing security clearance checks.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined several requests to provide figures for the intelligence community. The office also would not say what contingency plans are in place in case officers are taken off work due to not complying with the mandate.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines declined at a hearing last week to disclose what percentage of the workforce had been vaccinated, but said “we are not anticipating that it is going to be an issue for mission.” There are an estimated 100,000 employees in the intelligence community.

The vaccination rates provided by Stewart are mostly higher than those of the general US population. About 70% of American adults are fully vaccinated and 80% have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Also read: China’s Xi calls for Covid-19 vaccine mutual recognition

Stewart called on the administration to approve more exemptions for people on medical, religious and other grounds, and delay any terminations of intelligence officers.

“My question is what’s the impact on national security if we do that?” Stewart said. “You’re potentially firing thousands of people on the same day. And it’s not like you put an ad on Craigslist and have people apply by Thursday.”

According to Reuters, Business groups, state attorneys general and religious organisations have promised swift court challenges to try to block the vaccine-and-testing mandate unveiled on Thursday by the Biden administration.

President Biden had said that the country’s patience is growing thin with the 30% of Americans who are not fully vaccinated, and the rule is aimed at ensuring safe workplaces.

The vaccine requirement is being imposed through a rarely used process that has a history of being blocked by judges.

What is the rule?

Imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the rule requires all businesses with at least 100 employees to ensure they are vaccinated or submit to weekly testing and wearing a face covering.

OSHA rules typically take seven years to develop. This rule is being issued through an emergency temporary standard (ETS), a process that allows OSHA to address a “grave danger” and is aimed at protecting against that hazard.

Prior to an ETS issued in June that applied to healthcare settings, OSHA had issued nine emergency temporary standards since it was set up in 1971. Of those, six were challenged in court and only one survived unscathed: a standard issued in 1978 aimed at exposure to acrylonitrile, a chemical used in rubber manufacturing.

Who opposes the rule and why?

A group of 24 Republican attorneys general warned in September that they would go to court to fight what they said was an illegal mandate.

Read: Many ‘challenges’ ahead in India’s coronavirus vaccination program

They argued OSHA’s power to issue an emergency rule was limited to workplace hazards such as industrial chemicals, not a widely circulating virus. They also accused the Biden administration of usurping the power to regulate healthcare which has traditionally been left to states.

Industry, religious and civil liberty groups have also said they plan to sue because they expect the rule to be a burden on businesses or amount to an unconstitutional power grab.

What can opponents challenge?

The most likely avenue of attack will focus on the argument that there is a grave danger.

Opponents note that Covid-19 cases are declining from a recent wave in September and the country is getting closer to herd immunity.

The National Retail Federation wrote to the Biden administration in October questioning whether OSHA should be issuing a rule to address a disease that is a greater danger outside the workplace than in.

Courts have said OSHA must show there are no other means of addressing the grave danger. Trade groups have said mitigation efforts in low-risk industries such as construction have reduced the threat from the pandemic.

The ETS issued in June by OSHA that applied to healthcare settings could also be used against the agency. OSHA said then that it did not need a broader rule to apply across the economy.

What have courts said in the past about ETS?

The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 1978 standard on acrylonitrile because a study showed exposure to the chemical led to higher cancer rates among South Carolina workers, according to a report by the Fisher Phillips law firm.

Other emergency standards were struck down when OSHA failed to show a link to cancer from a targeted chemical or that the alleged hazard caused no more than headaches and fatigue, which a court found fell short of the grave danger threshold.

Federal regulators and independent health experts have certified that the available vaccines are safe. A recent Centres for Disease Control and Prevention study found that from April to July, unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely than vaccinated people to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die of Covid-19.

CIA Director William Burns disclosed publicly last week that 97% of the agency’s officers have been vaccinated. The National Reconnaissance Office, which operates US spy satellites, has more than 90% of its workforce vaccinated.

House Intelligence Committee Democrats said that they’re confident that the vaccination mandate will not cause a problem for the intelligence community. Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat, said the agencies were doing “quite well” and that getting vaccinated was a sign of an employee’s readiness.

“If somebody is not willing to do what’s necessary to protect their own health and the health of their unit, that actually calls into question their ability to effectively do the job,” Crow said in an interview.

The story was originally published by Associated Press.

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