President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a number of new steps his administration will take to try to get more Americans vaccinated and slow the spread of coronavirus, including requiring that all federal employees must attest to being vaccinated against Covid-19 or face strict protocols.
"This is an American tragedy. People are dying -- and will die -- who don't have to die. If you're out there unvaccinated, you don't have to die," Biden said during remarks at the White House. "Read the news. You'll see stories of unvaccinated patients in hospitals, as they're lying in bed dying from Covid-19, they're asking, 'Doc, can I get the vaccine?' The doctors have to say, 'Sorry, it's too late.'"
In his sternest approach yet to pushing Americans to get vaccinated, the President bluntly argued that if you are unvaccinated, "You present a problem to yourself, to your family and to those with whom you work."
Joe Biden announces measures to incentivize Covid-19 vaccinations, including a requirement for federal employees
Employees who have not been vaccinated "will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location, physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement, and be subject to restrictions on official travel," the White House said ahead of Biden's speech.
The federal employee vaccination requirement is not a mandate, officials have insisted, and most federal employees who do not get vaccinated will not lose their jobs as a result, CNN previously reported.
Other efforts the administration debuted Thursday to incentivize vaccinations included expanding paid leave for employees who take time off to get themselves and their family members vaccinated. Biden said employers would be reimbursed. He also called on states, territories, and local governments to do more to incentivize vaccination, including offering $100 to Americans getting vaccinated, paid for with American Rescue Plan funding.
"I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who got vaccinated already. But here's the deal: if incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them. We all benefit," Biden said.
"Our men and women in uniform, who protect this country from grave threats, should be protected as much as possible from getting Covid-19," he said. "I think this is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world, many where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent," Biden added.
All military and civilian Defense Department personnel will be asked to attest to their vaccination status, the department said Thursday evening. Those unable or unwilling to do so will "be required to wear a mask, physically distance, comply with a regular testing requirement and be subject to official travel restrictions," Jamal Brown, deputy Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
"Secretary (of Defense Lloyd) Austin will begin consulting our medical professionals, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to determine how and when to make recommendations to the President with respect to adding the COVID-19 vaccines to the full list of requirements for military personnel," Brown said.
Responding to reporter questions after his remarks, the President said he didn't know yet whether the federal government had the power to require vaccines. "It's still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country" require vaccines, he said, adding that he expects the vaccines will be fully approved by the US Food and Drug Administration by the fall.
On Monday, the Justice Department determined that federal law doesn't prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring Covid-19 vaccines -- even if the vaccines have only emergency use authorization so far. Biden's aides had previously said they do not believe he has the power to require all Americans to get shots. But his oversight of the federal workforce, they believed, can be a powerful model to other employers considering their options on requiring vaccines.
But several groups representing federal workers across the government are already raising concerns about the requirement for their personnel, including groups representing federal law enforcement officers, IRS managers and members of the US Border Patrol, among others.
The goal of the requirement, Biden aides have said, is to render being unvaccinated so burdensome that those who haven't received shots will have little choice other than to get them. It's an approach being tested by leaders in Europe, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who required either proof of vaccination or a negative test at public venues. And some states, including New York, have also said government employees must either prove they've been vaccinated or be tested weekly.
The White House had previously indicated it would support private companies' decisions to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations, but Biden took it a step further on Thursday, saying that he'd like to see companies, states and schools move in the direction of requiring Covid-19 vaccination
"My guess is that if we don't start to make more progress, a lot of businesses and a lot of enterprises are going to require proof (of vaccination) or you're not going to be able to participate," Biden said.
The prevalence of the highly contagious Delta variant in the US and low vaccine uptake have led to the federal government to take a number of steps to further mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
Zients told Blitzer that the FDA is certain that Americans don't need boosters right now, but it will continue to monitor the data.
"If they do decide that Americans need boosters, we are ready," he said. "We have the supply, and people will be able to get a booster shot -- if it's needed -- in a fast and efficient manner."
Earlier this week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended everyone -- including vaccinated individuals -- wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high Covid-19 transmission. The agency also recommended masks for all K-12 children in schools, even those who have been vaccinated.
During his remarks on Thursday, Biden acknowledged frustrations over the nation's slow bounce back and the renewal of restrictions.
"We have the right plan. We're coming back. We just have to stay ahead of this virus," Biden said. "I know this is hard to hear. I know it's frustrating. I know it's exhausting to think that we're still in this fight. And I know that we hoped this would be a simple, straightforward line without problems or new challenges. But that isn't real life. (We're) coming out of the worst public health crisis in 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."
The latest data from the CDC indicates that 49.4% of the total US population is fully vaccinated. And despite a previous downward slope in the pace of vaccinations, 389,963 people are now initiating vaccination each day, according to the current seven day average.
This is the highest it's been in more than three weeks, but it's still lower than the pace set by millions who were receiving shots every day earlier this year.
Covid-19: Biden tells states to offer $100 vaccine incentive as cases rise
The president also issued a strict new vaccine requirement for US f..., the nation's largest workforce with some two million people.
Just under half of the US is fully vaccinated, according to official data.
Nearly 70% of adults have received at least one jab, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control. But vaccination rates are varied across the country. Southern and western regions, which are now experiencing Covid outbreaks, have much lower rates.
It comes as virus-related deaths climb to around 2,000 per week. New cases are now at their highest point in the last three months, with about 60,000 being recorded per day.
Earlier this week, the CDC revised its mask policy for even fully vaccinated Americans in certain regions due to the Delta variant surges. Indoor mask use is now recommended for people in areas with higher rates of Covid transmission.
Joe Biden Defends New Vaccine Requirement for Federal Workers
On Thursday, Biden announced that vaccines would be mandatory for nearly all federal employees, and he said the Justice Department was looking into whether the government could mandate vaccines for the whole country. But mostly, Biden spent the majority of his nearly 30-minute address pleading with the unvaccinated to get their shots.
He highlighted new federal programs that will reimburse some employers who offer paid leave so that workers can get themselves and their families vaccinated, and he encouraged states to use money allocated from the American Rescue Plan to provide cash incentives to boost vaccination rates.
“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” he continued. “Anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated, will be required to mask, no matter where they work, test one or two times a week to see if they have acquired COVID, socially distance, and generally will not be allowed to travel for work.”
But while the mandate could provide a blueprint for local governments and private businesses to implement their own vaccination requirements, there are major obstacles standing between the president’s directive and universal vaccination for government employees.
“Biden is now signaling to them that it’s lawful, and it’s effective, and that could be a game changer,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “The public are dazed and confused. I would be shocked if we saw a major change in behavior at the population level, and that’s why we need a mandate.”
The president stressed the need to re-implement mask mandates to stop the spread of the delta variant of COVID, and he again urged the depoliticization of the vaccine process. In typical Biden fashion, he also thanked prominent Republicans who have actively worked to convince their constituents to get the shot.
“From the start, I have to compliment Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he hasn’t made it political, he's encouraged people to get vaccinated and is continuing to do so in the states in pretty good shape,” Biden said, also praising Alabama Republican Gov.Kay Ivey, who recently encouraged vaccines.
“Look,” Biden added, “this is not about red states and blue states; it's literally about life and death.”
States and cities around the country have implemented similar requirements in recent days, as did the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has ordered all 115,000 frontline health care workers to get vaccinated within the next two months.
Obstacles both bureaucratic and political, however, mean that Biden’s vaccine mandate is not yet as comprehensive as public healt...—most notably in regards to the Department of Defense.
With nearly 1.4 million people in active duty service, and another 732,000 civilian personnel, the Pentagon is the nation’s single largest employer. But due to Department of Defense rules requiring that servicemembers give their “informed consent” to medical treatment, Biden’s vaccine mandate won’t apply to active duty personnel until the Food and Drug Administration officially approves the COVID-19 vaccines curre....
Troops are currently required to be vaccinated against more than a dozen illnesses, from chickenpox to rabies, depending on the location and duration of their employment, and while Biden could issue a waiver for the FDA approval requirement, he has publicly stated that he wants to put that decision in the hands of Pentagon leaders.
I don’t know—I’m going to leave that to the military,” Biden told NBC News in April, calling the matter a “tough call” that he was not yet prepared to make. “I’m not saying I won’t. I think you’re going to see more and more o....”
Asked about the same issue on Thursday, Biden gave a similar answer, explaining that he remained committed to not pressuring the FDA for approval. But Biden said he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were considering the idea of mandati... before the approval process was complete.
“He's open to it,” Biden said of Austin. “And the question is when is the right time to get the most bang for the buck when you do it. A lot of this is timing.”
Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding ... and of Medicine, called the lag on a mandate for active duty military “silly.”
“That’s crazy—that’s absolutely crazy,” Brewer said. “In the military, you’re close together, you’re in tight groups, you’re spending lots of time together. Every single person that’s military should be vaccinated against SA....
A fact sheet released before the president’s remarks noted that Biden has ordered the Department of Defense to “look into how and when they will add COVID-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military.” But the fact sheet outlines no timeline or process for doing so.
Although the military’s vaccination rate has actually outpaced that of the general population, some service members have reportedly expressed hesitation to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who has introduced legislation that would forbid the government from compelling members of the military to get vacci....
Massie’s bill, which has 28 cosponsors, is unlikely to become law, but it indicates the broader political problem facing Biden’s vaccine mandate push. While the lag time for military vaccinations could be resolved by the end of the summer—Army Times reported earlier this month that the U.S. Army had issued an internal notice ordering commanders to “prepare for a directive to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for servic... by September, “pending full FDA licensure”—the vaccine mandate faces steep opposition from some of the nation’s most powerful public-sector un....
The American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than 200,000 postal workers, announced its opposition to Biden’s mandate before it was even formally announced, noting that while its leadership encourages postal workers to get vaccinated voluntarily, “it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent.”
The International Association of Fire Fighters, a close political ally of Biden’s, has also pushed back against mandates.
“We’re not doing any mandates. We’re not advocating any mandates for vaccination,” Tim Burn, press secretary for the IAFF, told Politico. “At this point we want to make sure that our members have what they...
Other unions stayed conspicuously quiet ahead of Biden’s announcement: the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 700,000 federal workers, initially did not comment on news of the proposed mandate, issuing a cautious statement on Thursday afternoon noting that the ... of the policy to be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementat...
“Based on today’s announcement, it is our understanding that under President Biden’s proposal the vast majority of federal employees would not have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment,” Everett Kelley, the union’s national president, said in a statement, “but that those who choose not to receive the vaccine may face certain restrictions.”
Biden’s announcement, just like mask-wearing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a change in both strategy and rhetoric from the federal government. Last year, Biden declared that he did not feel that vaccines should be mandatory, and he promised not to do so as president.
But continuously changing public guidances from the CDC, as well as the hardened opposition to vaccines from some conservatives, have made it clear that the government response needs to be more stick than carrot at this stage, public health experts said.
“You need to separate out what makes sense from a public health perspective from what makes sense from a political perspective,” said Brewer. “From a public health perspective, everybody should be vaccinated over the age of twelve—they would mandate vaccinations for the whole country if the only thing you were basing it on was risk-benefit.”
As Biden exited the press conference, a reporter asked about the president’s declaration in May that “if you’ve been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask” and whether that still remained true.
A visibly annoyed Biden, who had already walked away from the podium, yelled back at the reporter, “It was true at the time!”
Just before he left the room, Biden explained the lack of vaccinations, paired with the rise of the new variant, had changed the situation.
“What happened was, this variant came along, they didn’t get vaccinated, it was spread more rapidly, and more people were getting sick,” he said.