President Joe Biden said he’ll require federal workers to prove they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or wear masks and submit to frequent coronavirus testing as the highly contagious delta variant is causing cases to spike in the US.
The rules will cover millions of federal workers, including the military and on-site contractors. Biden also asked his team to take steps to apply similar standards to all federal contractors and encourage private sector employers to follow the same approach.
“What I’m trying to do is keep people safe,” Biden said Thursday at the White House. “If in fact you’re unvaccinated, you present a problem to yourself, to your family and to those with whom you work.”
Biden’s requirements come in response to vaccine holdouts, whose refusal to get shots has allowed the delta variant to spread.
The president on Thursday pleaded with Americans to get shots, urging them not to view vaccination as a partisan issue, as many do, and called on states to offer $100 incentives for the unvaccinated. He sought to reassure Americans that vaccines work and can prevent people from dying.
“If tomorrow I can wave a wand and every American was vaccinated, then, in fact, we would be out of the woods,” Biden said.
Biden’s administration had hoped that most Americans would voluntarily choose to be vaccinated, limiting the ability of the virus to spread. But only about 49 percent of the US population is fully vaccinated. In recent days, there’s been a rebound in first shots in a few of the worst-hit states.
In the spring, Biden set the goal of at least partially vaccinating 70 percent of American adults by July 4, which the country failed to meet. At the same time, the delta variant took root across the country, largely infecting the unvaccinated but also spreading to inoculated people.
But with cases rising and companies and municipalities beginning to require their employees be vaccinated, Biden is taking the same step for federal workers. The federal government employs more than 4 million people, including more than 2 million in the civilian workforce.
“We all want our lives to get back to normal and fully vaccinated workplaces will -- will -- make that happen more quickly and more successfully,” Biden said.
Biden said he doesn’t know whether the federal government can impose vaccine mandates nationwide. “Local communities can do that,” he said.
“Local businesses can do that. It’s still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country.”
The virus surge poses a serious political threat to the president, who promised a “summer of joy” on July 4 as he declared America’s independence from Covid-19. Biden had counted on plummeting case rates to anchor the economic recovery and his policy agenda.
“Vaccines are the best defense against you getting severely ill from Covid-19, the very best defense,” Biden said Thursday. “You want to know how we put this virus behind us? I’ll tell you how. We need to get more people vaccinated.”
Biden also said that “we can and we must” open schools in the fall. He called on school districts nationwide to host at least one vaccination clinic in coming weeks to administer shots to kids 12 and over, the group that’s eligible to receive them. He urged parents to get their kids vaccinated.
If and when shots are approved by US regulators for kids under 12, Biden said his administration will be prepared to distribute them safely.
Also Thursday, Biden said small- and medium-size businesses will be reimbursed for offering employees paid leave to get family members vaccinated, according to the White House.
With members of the military, Biden is said he’s directing the Defense Department to determine how and when to add Covid-19 shots to those already required.
Asked whether he’s open to requiring the military to get shots before vaccines receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration, Biden said: “The question is when is the right time to get the most bang for the buck when you do it.” The FDA has given emergency authorization for the vaccines to be used and Biden said he expects full approval later this year.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tightened its guidance, advising Americans to wear masks in public indoor places located in areas with substantial spread. With the District of Columbia’s case rate hitting the threshold set out by the CDC, the White House began requiring staff and journalists to cover their noses and mouths while inside the buildings on its grounds.
“I hope all Americans who live in areas with substantial or high case rates will follow the mask guidance,” Biden said.
The policy for federal workers also follows the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Monday announcement that it will require all of the agency’s front-line health care workers to be vaccinated.
The US recorded more than 86,000 new cases on Wednesday, driving the rolling seven-day average to more than 66,000, according to the CDC.
The rolling average case rate is more than five times higher than it was a month ago, before the delta variant became the dominant US strain.