President Biden on Thursday announced new rules to persuade federal workers to get inoculated against COVID-19, a step that reflected his frustration with lagging vaccination rates and his fear that more unnecessary deaths are on the horizon.
More than 2 million people employed by the federal government will be required to wear masks, physically distance from others in the workplace and get tested regularly unless they’ve been vaccinated. The rules will also apply to contractors employed at federal sites.
The White House said all federal contractors will eventually face the same restrictions, and Biden directed the Pentagon to explore how quickly it can add coronavirus shots to the list of required vaccinations for members of the armed forces.
“What I’m trying to do is keep people safe,” he said from the East Room of the White House, where he announced the new rules and other incentives to nudge more Americans to get their shots. “If, in fact, you’re unvaccinated, you present a problem to yourself, to your family and to those with whom you work.”
The announcement places the federal government, the country’s largest employer, at the forefront of efforts to boost vaccination rates by applying pressure at offices and other job sites. Some private companies and local governments, including Los Angeles, have already announced similar policies.
During his remarks, Biden repeatedly pleaded with people to get vaccinated, saying “people are dying, and will die, who don’t have to die.” Although more than 189 million Americans have received at least one shot, and more than 163 million are fully vaccinated, at least 90 million people who are eligible have not received a shot.
Biden’s speech came amid concerns that the country’s fight against the pandemic is backsliding. Two days ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that even vaccinated people should wear masks when indoors in communities where the coronavirus is surging, a step intended to slow the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.
“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 we’re still in this fight.”
Biden’s announcement included other steps intended to increase vaccinations. Washington will reimburse small- and medium-businesses that grant paid leave to employees who are helping get their children or other family members vaccinated. Biden is also asking schools to host clinics to help get students vaccinated. The shots are currently approved for children as young as 12.
The Treasury Department also said state and local governments could use American Rescue Plan funds to pay $100 to newly vaccinated people to further encourage them to get the shots.
The White House has previously been wary of any kind of vaccine requirements, preferring to focus on making the shots easily accessible and nudging people toward getting inoculated.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced its own vaccine requirement this week for the agency’s healthcare workers and gave them eight weeks to comply.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal workers, said it expected the new rules detailed by Biden on Thursday would be subject to collective bargaining.
“While we await specific proposals and anticipate the negotiation process, we encourage all of our members who are able to take advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated and help our nation put an end to this deadly pandemic,” said Everett Kelley, the union’s national president.
The White House did not respond to a question about whether it expected to negotiate the new rules with unions.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said vaccine requirements are “an acceptable way” to get more people protected from COVID-19.
“If you are coming back into the workplace, you have to know what’s around you,” he told C-SPAN earlier this week. “If you come back in and you are not vaccinated, everybody in that workplace is jeopardized.”
Mandates or vaccine passports have been controversial ideas, especially with some Republicans. Far-right commentators have also dialed up the outrage over what they perceive as heavy-handed government initiatives.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that some people are “sort of allergic” to mandates of any kind.
“I don’t want to turn them off,” she said in an interview with Dr. Marc Siegel on SiriusXM’s “Doctor Radio Reports.”
Her agency already faced some backlash on Tuesday when it recommended that people wear masks indoors in public settings in areas where COVID-19 is surging, even though it does not have the authority to require Americans to follow its guidance.
Walensky said that requiring vaccines at this point could be tricky because the Food and Drug Administration has authorized them only on an emergency basis and the full approval process could last several more months.
However, she added that she would “endorse any way that we can get more people vaccinated to prevent severe disease and death.”
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said she worried earlier this year that vaccine mandates could backfire.
“We’re at a different place than we were then,” she said. “I can see employers deciding ‘we have to get back to business.’”
She said it was particularly important to require healthcare workers or nursing home employees to get their shots.
“It’s just simply too risky to not have staff in those places vaccinated,” Nuzzo said.
The country remains just shy of Biden’s goal to have 70% of adults receive at least one shot by July 4, a reflection of how difficult it can be to reach and convince holdouts.
“What we have now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Biden said after touring a Mack Trucks facility in Pennsylvania on Wednesday. “Please, please, please, if you’re not vaccinated, protect yourself and the children out there.”
The White House highlighted a glimmer of progress on Wednesday, saying nearly 500,000 people received their first dose of a vaccine, the highest number since the beginning of the month.