Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, made the rounds on Sunday television shows to defend the Biden administration’s new Covid vaccine mandates, portraying them as narrow directives that apply only to specific professions where the federal government “has legal authority to act” — a direct counter to Republican accusations of unconstitutional federal overreach.
Dr. Murthy called the plan “ambitious and thoughtful” on the ABC program “This Week,” saying, “These kinds of requirements actually work to improve our vaccination rates.” He said they were part of “a serious of steps that have to be taken in order to protect our country from Covid-19, and help us get through this pandemic.”
He cited Tyson Foods, one of the nation’s top meat processors. In August, it said it would require Covid vaccinations for its employees. The surgeon general said the company’s vaccination rate had shot up “from 45 percent to more than 70 percent in a very short period of time. And they’re not even at their deadline yet.”
The mandates — for either vaccination or weekly testing — cover 17 million health care workers in institutions that get Medicare and Medicaid funds, as well as roughly 80 million employees in private companies with more than 100 workers.
Asked about the administration’s novel use of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s powers over private workplaces to put the mandates in place, Dr. Murthy said the administration believed it was “appropriate” and “legal.”
O.S.H.A.’s foundational legislation, he said, gives the agency a responsibility “to ensure that the workplace is safe for workers, and that’s what this measure does.”
Republican governors in several states have pledged to file suit to prevent the rules from taking effect, opposition that reflects anger and fear Covid vaccines have stirred among a significant portion of G.O.P. voters.
Asked if the new mandates would harden calls for civil disobedience and opposition to Covid vaccinations, Dr. Murthy said it was entirely understandable that people were fatigued by the waves of viral illness and that some had lost patience with safety precautions.
But he pointed to the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks a day earlier as a model for of how the nation could unify around crisis.
“This has been a long, difficult pandemic — I know it has generated a lot of anger and a lot of fatigue, a lot of impatience,” he said.
“But what we cannot allow,” he added, “is for this pandemic to turn us on each other. Our enemy is the virus. It is not one another.”
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Dr. Murthy acknowledged that people would seek to sidestep the mandates with religious exemptions or other means, but noted that the nation had learned over the decades how to, for instance, enforce childhood vaccinations as a requirement for school attendance.
“We have experience in dealing with exemptions,” he said, “but have to be vigilant there and make sure people are using them in the spirit that they’re intended and not, as you know, abusing them or asking for exemptions when they don’t apply.”