President Biden visited the Chicago area Thursday to highlight vaccine mandates imposed by some of the biggest local companies, hoping to rally support for rules that are increasing vaccinations while sparking furious debate over the best way to reach the leery.
Mr. Biden said he is pushing employer-based mandates because companies saw their vaccination rates rise above 90% after imposing them. He also believes the economic recovery depends on broad immunization.
“Here’s the deal, these requirements are already proving that they work,” the president said during a visit to a Clayco construction site in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. “In the past few weeks, as more and more organizations have implemented their own requirements, they’ve seen their vaccination rates rise dramatically.”
He said the Department of Defense saw its rate of vaccinated active-duty troops rise from 67% to 97% after it mandated the shots six weeks ago.
Mr. Biden said Chicago-based United Airlines saw its vaccination rate jump from 59% to 99% after it announced its mandate in early August. Half of the previously unvaccinated workers chose the shot upon facing termination, leaving about 200 holdouts in a company of 67,000 employees.
“More lives are being saved,” Mr. Biden said, rebuking those who focus on holdouts threatening to quit. “Look at the bigger story.”
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He also highlighted Fox News as a company with vaccine rules, relishing its role as a perceived rival of his administration.
“Gimme a break, Fox News!” he told the Illinois crowd.
The president’s trip comes as corporate America seeks clarity over the COVID-19 vaccine and testing regulations that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration will impose on companies with 100 or more workers. The regulation has been crawling through the rule-making process for a month, though Mr. Biden says companies do not have to wait for OSHA before setting up a system.
Clayco, which hosted Thursday’s event and is one of the largest construction companies in the Midwest, is implementing a system of vaccination or testing in line with the plan Mr. Biden outlined on Sept. 9, according to the White House.
About 56% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 65% have received at least one dose. But nearly a quarter of eligible persons, or around 70 million people, have not come forward for a single shot.
Mr. Biden is worried they will allow the virus to proliferate, filling hospitals during the winter months while acting as a catalyst for “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated persons, too.
The president said cases have come down of late, but the U.S. isn’t out of the woods.
“My message is: Require your employees to get vaccinated,” Mr. Biden told businesses. “With vaccinations, we’re going to beat this pandemic finally. Without them, we face endless months of chaos in our hospitals, damage to our economy and anxiety in our schools.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, pointed to the number of unvaccinated people who end up in ICU beds.
“They are on the verge of death simply because they have not taken advantage of this life-saving vaccine,” she said.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois Democrat, evoked the new James Bond movie.
“It’s no time to die. It’s time to get vaccinated,” he said.
GOP critics and some pundits say federal mandates could be counter-productive, morphing a health effort into an overtly political issue.
“This isn’t about if someone should or should not get the vaccine, it’s about the fact that Biden is demanding they do – Biden is putting politics OVER our personal freedoms,” Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, said Thursday in a fundraising pitch.
Some Republican governors have banned vaccine mandates within their borders, saying no worker should choose between the shot and feeding their families. A protester held up a sign near the Clayco site that read: “Mandates are 4 Greed and power.”
The new rules will likely be contested in court once they are implemented, and business groups have questioned its feasibility — whether there are enough tests, or what happens if employers refuse and walk off the job during the ongoing labor crunch, for example.
The administration says the business sector has understandable questions that are being vetted at OSHA.
Mr. Biden said vaccination requirements stretch to America’s founding — George Washington mandated smallpox inoculations for the soldiers under his command in 1777, and schools across the country have mandated various vaccines for decades.
A White House report said more than 3,500 organizations “have already stepped up to require vaccinations, and thousands more will require vaccinations in the weeks ahead.”
At Tyson Foods, the rate jumped from 45% in August to 91% after the mandate took hold. Other employers requiring vaccination include AT&T, Bank of America, CVS, Disney, Google, Hess, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Netflix, Procter & Gamble and Walgreens, the administration said.
The forthcoming OSHA rules will apply to 80 million workers in the private sector.
Mr. Biden also mandated vaccines for federal workers and millions of health workers at settings that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding, bringing the universe of workers impacted by his plans to 100 million.