Vaccine Mandates 'Needed' But Legal Obstacles Remain, Former CDC Director Says

The United States needs a full vaccine mandate to be able to control its COVID-19 epidemic but legal obstacles may prevent that from happening, the former director of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has told Newsweek.

Asked whether the U.S. should impose vaccine mandates, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who was CDC director for eight years and is also the former commissioner of health for New York City, said the Joe Biden administration is already facing legal challenges for trying to impose mandatory vaccination for federal employees, and that the president hasn't been able to implement the mandate due to wrangling in court. Multiple states—including Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Ohio—have sued the Biden administration over the vaccine mandates.

Whether a vaccine mandate in the United States is successful "remains to be seen," said Frieden, who is now CEO and president of the Resolve To Save Lives, an initiative of global public health organization Vital Strategies.

"I think that's a real challenge that the legal situation makes it considerably more complex here," he said.

"The laws in the U.S. don't make it easy to mandate, but I do think that ethically, and epidemiologically, mandates are needed. When your behavior could result in the death of another person—that's not just about your right to do or not do what you want to do—that is a broader requirement really," he added.

"The legal aspects of this are complex and controversial. And it's not just a matter of the [Biden] administration being able to wave a wand and impose a mandate."

The current head of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, told ABC News in an interview on Sunday that the new Omicron variant has been found in about 15 states so far.

South African scientists in the epicenter of the outbreak and White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci have expressed cautious optimism about the variant based on the symptoms reported so far, which have been mild and have not led to a severe increase in hospitalizations.

Asked about the outlook for the new variant, which carries about 50 mutations, Frieden said it would be "premature" to say Omicron is a less severe strain than previous versions of the virus.

"In the past, we have found it quite difficult to sort out disease severity of different strains. We're still unclear of whether Delta is more or less severe as a strain," Frieden said.

"It's a very difficult question to answer, and I don't expect it to be answered quickly, unless the results are really dramatically different. If it is the case that Omicron is far less severe, we may know that in a couple of weeks, but generally, these are not easy questions to answer," he added.

Fauci told CNN Sunday that the U.S. was reviewing its travel ban on South Africa and other countries in the region daily and hoped to lift them "within a reasonable amount of time," even as the variant spreads across the U.S.

The White House announced the travel ban over a week ago, following the moves of countries including Britain, Israel and the European Union. The bans are having a devastating impact on the economies of the southern African countries.

Asked about whether these bans were fair, given that Omicron has spread to at least 38 countries now, Frieden said: "I think it was politically inevitable that there would be travel restrictions, given that there are important questions [about Omicron] that we don't know the answer to, including the severity and immune escape questions.

"But I hope that within a small number of weeks, those restrictions could be lifted. What's important to be clear about, is that that travel restrictions don't prevent the spread of this disease globally, but they can delay it by a couple of days, a few days or even a couple of weeks. And that's justifiable from the standpoint of some countries if that slight time grace period allows for stronger responses."

Dr Tom Frieden CDC
Dr. Tom Frieden, then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delivers remarks during a press conference September 29, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Frieden told Newsweek that the United States needs a full vaccine mandate to be able to control its COVID-19 epidemic but legal obstacles may prevent that from happening. Win McNamee/Getty