In his loudest pandemic actions and words, President Joe Biden announced sweeping new federal vaccine requirements Thursday that affect up to 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to scale up COVID-19 vaccines and curb the rising delta variant.
Speaking at the White House, Biden harshly criticized the roughly 80 million Americans who are not yet vaccinated, despite months of availability and incentives.
“We have been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and his refusal has cost us all, “he said, almost biting his words. The unvaccinated minority” can cause a lot of damage, and it is. “
Republican leaders, as well as some union bosses, said Biden was going too far in trying to strengthen private companies and workers, a certain sign of the legal challenges ahead.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement that “Biden and the Radical Democrats … have declared war on capitalism (and) mocked the Constitution.”
AFL-CIO National President Everett Kelley insisted that “changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units when appropriate.”
Expansive rules require all employers with more than 100 workers to require that they get vaccinated or tested for the virus on a weekly basis, affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million health center workers who receive Medicare or federal Medicaid will also need to be fully vaccinated.
Biden is also signing an executive order to require vaccination of executive branch employees and contractors doing business with the federal government, with no trial option. That covers several million more workers.
Biden announced the new requirements in a White House speech Thursday afternoon as part of a new “action plan” to address the latest surge in coronavirus cases and the stagnant pace of COVID-19 injections that has generated doubts among the public about its handling. of the pandemic.
Just two months ago, Biden prematurely declared the nation’s “independence” from the virus.
Now, despite more than 208 million Americans receiving at least one dose of the vaccines, the US is experiencing about 300% more new COVID-19 infections per day – about two and a half times more hospitalizations. and almost double the amount. deaths compared to the same time last year.
“We are in the difficult stretch and it could last a while,” Biden said of the current state of the pandemic.
After months of using promotions to boost the vaccination rate, Biden is taking a much firmer hand as he blames people who have not yet received vaccines for the sharp increase in cases that is killing more than 1,000 people per day. and endangering a fragile economic situation. rebound.
In addition to vaccination requirements, Biden went on to double federal fines for airline passengers who refuse to wear masks on flights or maintain facial coverage requirements on federal property in accordance with Centers for Control guidelines. and Disease Prevention.
Biden announced that the federal government will work to increase the supply of virus tests and that the White House has obtained concessions from retailers such as Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to sell home test kits at a cost starting this week.
The administration was also sending additional federal support to help schools operate safely, including additional funding for testing. And Biden will ask that large entertainment venues and arenas require vaccinations or proof of a negative test to enter.
The requirement for large companies to require weekly vaccinations or testing for employees will be enacted through an upcoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that carries fines of $ 14,000 per violation, an administration official said.
The White House did not immediately say when it would take effect, but said workers would have plenty of time to get vaccinated.
The rule would also require large companies to grant paid time off for vaccination.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will extend a vaccination requirement issued earlier this summer, for nursing home staff, to other health care settings, including hospitals, home health agencies and facilities. dialysis.
Separately, the Department of Health and Human Services will require vaccines in Head Start Programs, as well as in schools run by the Department of Defense and the Office of Indian Education, affecting about 300,000 employees.
Biden’s order for executive branch workers and contractors includes exceptions for workers seeking religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, according to Psaki. Federal workers and contractors will have 75 days to get fully vaccinated.
Workers who do not comply will be referred to their agencies’ human resources departments for advice and discipline, to include possible dismissal.
“We would like to be a model” for other organizations and businesses across the country, Psaki said of the federal workforce.
An AP-NORC poll conducted in August found that 55% of Americans are in favor of requiring government workers to be fully vaccinated, compared to 21% against.
Similar majorities also backed vaccine mandates for healthcare workers, teachers who work in K-12 schools, and workers who interact with the public, such as in restaurants and stores.
Biden has encouraged COVID-19 vaccine requirements in settings like schools, workplaces and college campuses, and the White House hopes the strengthened federal mandate will inspire more companies to follow suit.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles Board of Education was expected to vote to require that all students 12 and older be fully vaccinated in the nation’s second-largest school district.
Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, said in late July that it required all workers at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as their managers traveling within the US, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. before October 4. it did not go so far as to require shooting for its front-line workers.
CVS Health said in late August that it would require certain employees who interact with patients to be fully vaccinated by the end of October. That includes nurses, care managers, and pharmacists.
In government, several federal agencies have previously announced vaccine requirements for much of their staff, particularly those in health care functions like the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Pentagon moved last month to require that all members of the service are vaccinated.
Combined, the White House estimates that those requirements cover 2.5 million Americans. Thursday’s order is expected to affect nearly 2 million more federal workers and potentially millions of contractors.
Biden’s measures should help, but what is really needed is a mindset shift for many people, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
“There is an aspect of this now that has to do with our country being so divided,” Sharfstein said. “This has become so politicized that people cannot see the value of a vaccine that can save their lives. Our own divisions are preventing us from ending a pandemic. “
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union of federal employees, said that while it strongly encourages vaccines, workers must have a voice in new mandates that affect them.
“Simply put, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” said National President Everett Kelley. “We look forward to negotiating this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who can get vaccinated as soon as they can.”
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Association of Law Enforcement Officials, called the mandate for federal workers “ill-conceived” and said, “Vaccination should be promoted through education and encouragement, not through coercion.”
More than 177 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but confirmed cases have skyrocketed in recent weeks to an average of about 140,000 per day with an average of about 1,000 deaths, according to data from the Centers for Control. and Disease Prevention.
Most of the spread, and the vast majority of serious illness and death, occurs among people who are not yet fully vaccinated. So-called progressive infections occur in vaccinated people, but they tend to be much less dangerous.
Federal officials are moving forward with plans to begin administering booster injections of the mRNA vaccines to bolster protection against the more transmissible delta variant.
Last month, Biden announced plans for them to be available beginning Sept. 20, but only the Pfizer vaccine will likely have received regulatory approval for a third dose by then.
Officials aim to give the booster shots about eight months after the second dose of the two-dose vaccines.