Rick Haglund: While Republicans blast Biden’s vaccine mandate, some companies are embracing it

September 27, 2021 3:00 am

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the COVID-19 National Month of Action on Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. | Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz via Flickr Public Domain

Patrick O’Keefe is a Bloomfield Hills business consultant who’s recognized as an expert in “strategic advisory services,” according to a lengthy biography on his company’s website.

But he offered some lousy counsel recently in his role as a Michigan State University trustee.

O’Keefe, a Republican who was elected to the MSU board last November, spoke out against the university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students, faculty and staff. He claimed the university was following “the herd” and not the science in requiring COVID vaccinations.

MSU Trustee Patrick O’Keefe

(His fellow trustees later disavowed O’Keefe’s comments and affirmed MSU President Samuel Stanley’s authority to enact the COVID vaccine mandate. Stanley, a physician, is an infectious disease specialist.)

Like many other Republican officeholders who seem to want to prolong a pandemic that’s killed more Americans than the 1918 global influenza outbreak and hammered the economy, O’Keefe said getting vaccinated should be a personal decision made after weighing the costs and benefits of the vaccine.

O’Keefe also said MSU’s edict also didn’t take into consideration people like him who contracted COVID and now have natural immunities that might be stronger than those provided by the vaccine.

That’s a major talking point by prominent Republicans, including state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who continually push the message that personal freedom should trump vaccination and mask mandates.

While research has shown that those who’ve had COVID do have an immune response to the virus, it’s unclear how long such natural immunity lasts. 

Experts recommend that those who’ve recovered from COVID still get vaccinated. That’s advice former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus, took quietly before leaving office in January.

Political leaders, like the rest of us, are tiring of a pandemic that has been ravaging the world for more than 18 months. Even Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who built a glowing national profile for taking tough actions early on to save lives, has given up on mandates.

Some pundits speculate Whitmer’s decision to let local health departments and school boards take the heat was an attempt to appeal to a noisy minority of voters opposed to all mask and vaccine mandates as she seeks reelection next year.

But if that’s her motive, it might not be working. A new statewide poll conducted for the Detroit Regional Chamber found Whitmer’s approval rating has fallen nearly 11 percentage points over the past year, from 58.7% in September 2020 to 47.9% this month.

President Joe Biden, however, has seen enough. Earlier this month, the Democrat announced sweeping new rules that would require as many as 100 million Americans to be vaccinated or, in the case of many private sector workers, be tested weekly for COVID.

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost us all,” Biden said in announcing the mandates.

His main concern is the human tragedy of a virus that has killed nearly 685,000 Americans, including 22,000 in Michigan. While cases have recently declined, deaths are rising sharply, as the more deadly Delta variant spreads.

We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost us all.

– President Joe Biden

But Biden also is keenly aware of the havoc COVID has played on the economy. The pandemic has snapped supply chains, driven millions of workers from their jobs and killed hundreds of thousands of businesses.

Not surprisingly, businesses and labor unions are split on Biden’s mandates, which will likely take effect in a few weeks after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issues rules.

Businesses that employ 100 or more workers are required to have all their employees vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID. Some businesses that are already having trouble attracting workers fear losing even more of them by mandating vaccines.

Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard supports vaccine mandates as a critical measure in restoring the economy, 

“The benefits are just huge,” said the fully vaccinated economist, who called COVID vaccines “the quintessential public good.” 

Ballard said he doesn’t know exactly what the post-COVID economy will look like, but “whatever that new normal is, we will not be able to get there until the virus is much better under control than it is now.”

Jim Keane, chief executive of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc., has a simple reason for supporting Biden’s vaccine mandates: The pandemic is keeping its customers from buying enough of the office furniture it manufactures.

Lingering COVID concerns are preventing many of its business customers from bringing their workforces back to their offices, depressing office furniture sales. Steelcase revenues fell 11% in the quarter ending June 30, compared to the same period a year ago.

Keane told analysts in an earnings conference call that Steelcase believes the federal vaccine mandates “will provide a clearer path for our customers and their employees and is a real positive for our business.”

That’s the kind of business logic that MSU Trustee O’Keefe, whose day job is helping turn around troubled companies, should appreciate.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.