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The Austrian Vaccine Mandate Takes Effect, But Few in Europe Plan to Emulate It

Although a rule mandating most adults in Austria to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is about to go into effect, the air of urgency that surrounded its introduction in November has mostly vanished. When it comes to easing regulations, few other countries appear to be willing to go as far as the United States.

The Austrian mandate for citizens aged 18 and above to be vaccinated — the first of its type in Europe — passed its final legislative obstacle Thursday when parliament’s upper house approved “a forward-looking and aggressive measure,” according to Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein. The bill was signed into law by the president on Friday.

It is anticipated to become law in the next days, but Austrians will have to wait a long to see any real changes. The harshest aspect of the plan, which was scaled down from the original idea, isn’t clear when or even if it would go into action.

Police will begin examining people’s vaccination status during traffic stops and checks on coronavirus limitations only in mid-March. If people cannot present proof of vaccination, they will be requested to do so in writing and punished up to 600 euros ($680) if they do not; penalties may reach 3,600 euros if people fight their penalty and formal procedures are initiated.

In a third phase, officials would review the national vaccination registry and give warnings to anyone who haven’t been vaccinated by the government’s deadlines, perhaps resulting in fines. When and if those meticulous inspections begin will be determined by whether authorities, with the support of an expert panel that will report every three months, believe immunization progress satisfactory.

Mueckstein claimed last week that he is unable to recall a specific date. “I’d like to see us not needing phase three at all,” he said on Oe1 radio.

The Austrian mandate, which exempts pregnant women, those who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical reasons, and those who have recently recovered from COVID-19, was conceived as the number of cases caused by the delta variant increased, prompting concerns that the country’s vaccination rate was low for Western Europe. Currently, 69 percent of the population has received all of their vaccines.

Officials say that the rule makes sense, even with the now-dominant omicron variety producing lesser disease and Austria prepared to relax certain coronavirus restrictions.

“The vaccination requirement won’t help us break the omicron wave right away, but that wasn’t the purpose of this bill,” Mueckstein said in a statement to parliament on Thursday. “The vaccination obligation should help protect us from the following waves, and especially the next variations,” says the author.

Not everyone is in agreement.

“At this moment, I don’t see the extra advantage of the vaccination requirement,” Gerald Gartlehner, an epidemiologist at Danube University Krems, said. He said that because of omicron’s highly contagious nature and milder symptoms, many people now have immunity, either through vaccination or infection.

The requirement varies from the original plan, which called for mandatory vaccinations for everyone aged 14 and older, as well as the implementation of a national vaccine registry by March. It was changed after talks with various organizations, including two of parliament’s three opposition parties.

Susanne Drapalik, the chief doctor of the Samaritan Federation Vienna, who was in charge of the capital’s largest vaccination facility on Friday, believes that the mandate will still lead to more people getting their vaccinations, “particularly those who are concerned about the mRNA vaccines.”

In November and December, there was a 15-20 percent increase in initial vaccinations, but it dropped again, and “sadly, we haven’t observed the enormous surge we had hoped for,” she added. “It’s more like a few droplets of rain.” The majority of those who come here are having their second or third round of injections. However, we remain optimistic that individuals may be persuaded.”

Vaccine requirements for certain professions or age groups exist in several European nations, but only Germany is seriously contemplating a mandate for all people. And since Chancellor Olaf Scholz lobbied for it late last year, suggesting that it would take effect in February or early March, its chances have grown bleaker.

Scholz left it to parliament to draft a nonpartisan mandate because his own coalition was split on the subject. Last week’s discussion left it unclear how much support a blanket mandate has, how it would function, and when any legislation would be put to a vote.

Germany has a military vaccine requirement and has passed laws requiring hospital and nursing care employees to certify that they are completely vaccinated or have recovered by mid-March. Even that might be difficult, with some local authorities claiming that they don’t have the resources to put it in place and that the regulations are unclear.

Vaccination is required for nursing home personnel in the United Kingdom, and the government planned to extend the obligation to frontline health care workers in April. It is now rethinking its decision due to staffing difficulties. Last fall’s calls in Belgium for obligatory vaccinations have receded.

Greece enforced a vaccine requirement for anyone aged 60 and up last month. Italy followed suit this week with a requirement that requires anybody above the age of 50 to get vaccinated or face a one-time fee of 100 euros.

Outside of Europe, Ecuador stated in December that most individuals will be required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

In the face of growing pandemic weariness, efforts to ease limitations are gaining traction in Europe and beyond. England, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and a number of Nordic nations have taken moves to eliminate or ease prohibitions. Even while case counts are still around all-time highs in several countries, such as Norway and Denmark, the softening is taking place.

Since President Joe Biden advocated mandatory COVID-19 doses or frequent testing at every employer in the country with more than 100 employees, vaccine requirements have become very contentious in the United States. The requirement was promptly challenged in court by Republicans, and it eventually failed.

A weakened federal requirement for immunizations for hospital and nursing care staff has been approved. The US military is now enforcing immunizations, and the Army said this week that 3,300 troops might be dismissed if they refuse to get injections.

Vaccine laws have sparked a flurry of protests in Canada over the last week, with protestors angry over a requirement that trucks entering the country be completely inoculated, which went into force in January.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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