President Joe Biden said he’d order all executive branch employees, federal contractors and millions of health-care workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, and that his administration would issue rules requiring large private employers to mandate shots or testing.
The new measures are Biden’s response to a resurgent Covid-19 pandemic driven by the delta variant of the virus and by tens of millions of Americans who have refused to be vaccinated. Federal employees who don’t comply could be dismissed, the administration said, and private employers might be fined.
Biden also delivered some of his harshest criticism yet of the 25% of U.S. adults who’ve so far not been inoculated, saying that they’re dragging out the pandemic that has claimed more than 650,000 lives in the U.S.
“My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see?” he said. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us, so please, do the right thing.”
His latest plan, the president said, would “combat those blocking public health” and also “protects our economy and will make our kids safer in schools.”
The directives mark a significant hardening of the administration’s position on vaccine mandates amid the surge by the delta variant that threatens to overwhelm hospitals in parts of the U.S.
The federal workforce mandate faced a muted initial reaction, with business and labor groups issuing cautious responses and saying they’d work with the administration.
Under Biden’s new approach, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will develop an emergency regulation requiring companies with 100 or more employees to require staff to be vaccinated or tested weekly, and to give paid time off to get inoculated.
Employers could face fines of nearly $14,000 per violation, one official said. It is expected to take effect in the coming weeks, the official said.
“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said in a speech from the White House — a swipe at Republican elected officials, including some governors, who have said the opposite.
“It’s about protecting yourself and those around you. The people you work with. The people you care about, the people you love. My job as president is to protect all Americans,” Biden said.
Biden will also require vaccinations for more than 17 million health-care workers at Medicare and Medicaid participating hospitals and in other health-care settings, a significant expansion of an existing requirement aimed at nursing homes.
The federal government will require vaccinations for staff at Head Start and Early Head Start programs, teachers and staff at Department of Defense schools, and teachers and staff at schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education.
Biden will call on states to require vaccines in all schools — a call sure to go unheeded in deeply Republican parts of the country — and on large entertainment venues to require patrons to prove vaccination or a negative test. He said he’d boost weekly shipments of monoclonal antibodies to states by 50% this month.
He also said he would loosen regulations around the Covid Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, to spur the economic recovery by making it easier for small businesses to borrow. He also said he’d streamline applications for Paycheck Protection Program loans to be forgiven.
The executive branch is on strong footing to require staff vaccinations, particularly since the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech vaccine received full approval, rather than just emergency authorization, according to Glenn Cohen, a law professor at Harvard Law School. The OSHA rule is likely to face the most legal challenges, with likely litigation over whether the agency is exceeding its authority.
The U.S. will spend nearly $2 billion to buy 280 million rapid tests as part of an effort to expand testing, and use the wartime Defense Production Act to expand manufacturing of tests. The administration will also send 25 million tests to community health centers and food banks.
Biden said that Walmart Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Kroger. Co. supermarkets will sell at-home, rapid Covid-19 tests at cost for the next three months.
In addition, the president is proceeding with a plan to start booster shots as soon as Sept. 20, subject to approval from health officials. Officials expect to begin giving Pfizer-BioNTech boosters at first.
The administration also said it would double fines for people who refuse to wear a mask during interstate travel, including on airplanes
Biden’s order for federal workers goes further than requirements he announced on July 29, which included an option for on-site federal contractors to choose testing instead of vaccination. Now, Biden is mandating vaccines for contractors.
One of his executive orders, issued Thursday for contractors, calls for the new requirement to be in place for contracts entered into on or after Oct. 15. It will apply to any workplace locations “in which an individual is working on or in connection with a Federal Government contract or contract-like instrument.”
There will be “limited exceptions” to Biden’s new federal worker mandate, including for religious objections or for those with disabilities, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. Employees who refuse will “face progressive disciplinary action” that could include dismissal, she said.
Psaki said it would take effect when Biden signs it, with a “ramp up” period of about 75 days. The executive order for federal workers, also issued Thursday, called for guidance to be released within 7 days.
Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers, voiced support for vaccines but also indicated that the new order should be negotiated with the labor groups.
“Workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” Kelley said in a statement.
The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, a voluntary group, called the move misguided. “Vaccination should be promoted through education and encouragement — not coercion,” President Larry Cosme said in a statement.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it would “carefully review the details” of the announcement, and will press for businesses to have the “resources, guidance, and flexibility necessary.” The Business Roundtable welcomed Biden’s “vigilance” and said it “looks forward to continue working with the administration and leaders across all levels of government to defeat the pandemic.”
The Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and the National Institutes of Health are all implementing previously announced vaccination requirements that cover 2.5 million workers, according to the administration.
While the White House doesn’t have the power to require vaccinations nationally, it has pointed to an emerging patchwork of employer vaccine requirements as a key factor driving a new wave of inoculations.
Surge in Cases
The push to force large employers to act comes on the heels of a dismal August payrolls report, which showed a much lower than expected 235,000 jobs added in the month. Employers are struggling to find workers with a record number of job openings and may face attrition if they force vaccination.
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, praised elements of the Biden plan, like the vaccine requirement for large private employers, but said more action is needed.
“That’s excellent. That protects workers,” she said. “But I wish the federal government went a lot further when it came to planes and trains and other places that it has direct authority.”
Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, described the Biden actions on Thursday as efforts to increase compliance with vaccination and mask-wearing.
“They’re covering the things that I think are most important, which are mandatory vaccination, to the extent that is lawful, and mandatory masking, to the extent that it’s lawful,” he said.
Biden focused on curbing the pandemic in the early months of his presidency, and by the July 4 holiday he spoke optimistically about the country declaring its “independence” from the virus after a dramatic decline in cases and deaths. But the vaccination campaign slowed, in part because of misinformation spread online and opposition among Republicans, even as restrictions were eased.
The U.S. recorded 176,000 new cases on Wednesday, far above the roughly 10,000 a day seen in June when the pandemic was at its ebb, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Another 2,143 people in the U.S. died from the virus on Wednesday
Vaccinations ticked back up over the last month. But Biden pointed out that leaves a quarter of eligible Americans — some 80 million people, he said — without a shot.