First lady Jill Biden used a visit Monday to the first school to administer the polio vaccine in 1954 as a backdrop when she urged parents everywhere to vaccinate children for COVID-19.
Mrs. Biden‘s stop at the Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, signaled that the administration’s campaign to convince parents to give smaller-dose Pfizer-BioNTech shots to children ages 5-11 is kicking into high gear.
“They are great, effective. and free,” Mrs. Biden said, giving her sales pitch to hesitant parents.
It’s also part of the administration’s new plan to throw everything it can at lifting a vaccination rate that’s wallowed below 60%. A parallel effort to mandate the shots or regular testing at large employers is spurring court challenges and promises a protracted legal fight.
In Fairfax County, about 260 children were vaccinated during a clinic at the school, which had a poster in the hallway hailing “polio pioneers” who received that vaccine at the school nearly 70 years ago.
Mrs. Biden and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy entered a gym where about 30 vaccinated students were sitting with their parents.
“Good for you!” Mrs. Biden told COVID-19 vaccine recipients. “Did you all get your stickers?”
Dr. Murthy made sure anyone who hadn’t received a sticker got one.
Federal agencies cleared the COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 to 11 last week. The White House said an initial shipment of 15 million doses will make the specially labeled shots plentiful over the coming days.
Looking ahead, the administration said it secured enough shots for all 28 million eligible children.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent a letter to school superintendents and elementary school principals urging them to increase uptake by holding vaccine clinics at schools and hosting conversations with pediatricians so parents could learn about the shots.
The administration’s messaging is getting reinforcement from Sesame Street.
“I got the COVID-19 vaccine today! My wing is feeling a little sore, but it’ll give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy. Ms. @EricaRHill even said I’ve been getting vaccines since I was a little bird. I had no idea!” an official Twitter account for Big Bird, who is supposed to be 6 years old, said Saturday, referring to a CNN journalist.
Mr. Biden responded with “Good on ya, @BigBird. Getting vaccinated is the best way to keep your whole neighborhood safe.”
But Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, picked a fight with the eight-foot-tall Muppet.
“Government propaganda…for your 5 year old!” he tweeted, prompting Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy,” to tweet that Sesame Street puppets are smarter than the senator.
Roughly 58% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against the disease, though the newly eligible children will boost the rate, at least in the near term. Polls suggest about a third of parents want to vaccinate their kids and another third is open to it but in a wait-and-see mode.
Meanwhile, the administration is nudging millions of adult workers to get vaccinated through a newly published regulation that requires private businesses and institutions with 100 or more employees to mandate the shots or weekly testing as of Jan. 4.
A federal appeals court temporarily blocked the rule Saturday, though the White House says it expects to prevail after a long legal fight.
Mr. Biden also mandated vaccines for the federal workforce. Nearly a dozen federal employees who say they have “natural immunity” from prior infection filed suit Monday over the rule, which requires them to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22.
“The lack of a remote-work or a natural immunity exception, especially the latter, raises serious questions about whether the federal employee vaccine mandate is designed to accomplish a legitimate federal purpose. The paucity of exceptions on these very legitimate bases indicates that the mandate is, at the very least, arbitrary and capricious in addition to being over-broad and poorly designed,” said the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
The complaining employees work for the U.S. Secret Services and the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation and Agriculture and said they can produce tests that show they have antibodies to the virus.
“The federal government has joined the vast majority of employers who have implemented vaccine mandates by refusing to carve out exceptions for employees who can demonstrate that they possess naturally acquired immunity,” said Jenin Younes, litigation counsel at the New Civil Liberties Alliance. “This scientifically unsound refusal effectively forces federal workers to subject themselves to an unnecessary medical procedure, violating their rights to bodily autonomy and to decline medical interventions under the United States Constitution.”
The Washington Post, citing union officials, reported that tens of thousands of federal workers have requested a religious exemption to the vaccine rule, ranging from little more than 60 people at the Education Department to thousands among the 38,000-employee force at the Bureau of Prisons.
White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said agencies will release their vaccination numbers after the Nov. 22 deadline but “we’re seeing strong compliance across the federal government.”
Ms. Jean-Pierre defended the decision to issue a contentious rule even as some employers lift vaccination rates with incentives or impose their own safety rules.
“We still have 1,300 people a day, approximately, dying of COVID. That should not be the number we are looking at,” she said. “We believe that in order to get this pandemic behind us we need to get more people vaccinated, and this is a way to do that.”