President Biden said Thursday that he is forcing 100 million Americans across federal agencies, large businesses and hospitals to “show some respect” and get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Mr. Biden is resorting to heavy measures in a scramble to fend off the delta variant that could tank his campaign pledge to defeat the coronavirus and “build back better.”
The mandates are part of a six-step plan to combat the virus. COVID-19 is killing 1,500 Americans per day and filling hospitals in regions with low vaccination rates. Outbreaks could imperil much of the country in the colder months, particularly as schools reopen.
Mr. Biden pointed the blame squarely at unvaccinated people, who account for the bulk, though not all, of hospitalizations and transmission of the pathogen.
He said in his national address that he is tired of pleading with the 80 million or so unvaccinated people who are eligible but refuse to roll up their sleeves — and now represent a minority of Americans.
He said the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to fully approve the Pfizer-BioNTech version of the vaccine should give people confidence in the shots, alongside COVID-19 requirements imposed by Fox News and other employers.
“What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see?” Mr. Biden said from the White House State Dining Room. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.”
Notably, Mr. Biden will tread into the private sector by ordering the Labor Department to issue rules requiring companies with 100 or more workers to impose vaccine mandates or conduct weekly testing.
The rule will be issued through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and will affect 80 million workers in the private sector.
The mandate on federal workers eliminates a provision that allowed people to opt into regular testing instead of getting the shots. It covers 4 million people in the executive branch, plus contractors who do business with the federal government.
Employees will have 75 days to comply. Disciplinary action will start with “counseling” and could end in termination.
Mr. Biden also is ordering 17 million workers at health care providers that receive Medicaid and Medicare funds to get vaccinated.
He pleaded with large concert halls and sports arenas to demand proof of vaccination or a negative test of infection.
Conservatives said the president overstepped in his zeal to corral the virus.
“For a guy who campaigned on uniting the country, this new mandate will only serve to divide our country further. But what else would you expect from a failed Democratic administration that can’t even count on the press to cover for it anymore?” said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a free market think tank. “Biden today has made clear to American workers and business owners that he is their worst enemy. His unconstitutional vaccine mandate will do more to kill businesses and put Americans out of work than any Democratic priority since Obamacare,” he said.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the new requirements are unacceptable.
“Biden is forcing an unconstitutional, un-American federal decree on businesses and families,” she said. “His agenda is all about power, all about control, and meant to divide us.”
The president is cracking down and fortifying defenses as the delta variant threatens to upend his first-year agenda after a chaotic military exit from Afghanistan that shook confidence in the administration.
Courts have upheld vaccine mandates, ruling that there are adequate exemptions to satisfy the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet the new mandates are sparking backlash from people who fear side effects from the novel vaccines or object to government overreach.
Labor unions, a key part of Mr. Biden‘s political base, say the rules must be subject to collective bargaining.
“Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” said Everett Kelly, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents 700,000 federal workers. “We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so.”
The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers across 31 agencies, said the administration must accommodate those who decide against the vaccine for religious or medical reasons.
“NTEU will monitor closely the implementation of this policy at the agencies where we represent employees to make sure that those with medical and religious exemptions are accommodated,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said in a statement.
Members of the military are required to get many vaccines, but Mr. Biden’s mandate is unprecedented in scope.
Still, the president stopped short of requiring vaccines on airplanes or trains and buses that travel across state lines.
Mr. Biden did say the Transportation Security Administration will double fines for violating the mask mandate on interstate transportation to $500 to $1,000 for first offenders and $1,000 to $3,000 for second offenders.
“If you break the rules, be prepared to pay,” Mr. Biden said. “Show some respect.”
The federal government hasn’t yet issued a unified “vaccine passport” to show proof of immunization.
The White House does not know what portion of the federal workforce remains unvaccinated but said it will have a better grasp once it requires workers to attest to their status.
It said mandates work and cited upticks in vaccination rates at companies such as Tyson Foods and United Airlines.
Mr. Biden pledged in 2020 to “beat COVID-19” and lead a robust economic recovery. He panned his predecessor’s efforts as bungling and catastrophic. Progress looked good over the late spring and summer as cities and towns reopened and Americans snapped up free and plentiful vaccines.
But the vaccination push stalled at around 50% of the population, and the advent of the delta variant exploited the gaps in protection, sparking yet another crisis across the Sun Belt and raising fears of another winter spike elsewhere.
Some hiccups were self-inflicted.
Biden officials reversed guidance that allowed vaccinated people to ditch their masks in May, citing troubling evidence that vaccinated people can transmit the virus in some cases. Officials have argued about the need for booster shots, leading to whiplash among the American public and sowing potential doubts among the unvaccinated about what the shots can and cannot do.
Beyond employer mandates, Mr. Biden’s plan calls for five additional steps:
• The president plans to provide booster shots “as early as Sept. 20” to those who received a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech of Moderna shots eight months ago. FDA regulators and advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must pore over data and sign off on the plan, so the timeline might change.
“While we wait, we’ve done our part,” Mr. Biden said. He said enough booster shots are available for everyone who wants them.
• For schools, Mr. Biden will require vaccination of teachers at Head Start Programs, Department of Defense schools, and Bureau of Indian Education-operated Schools and plead with all states to join the nine that have required teachers to get vaccinated.
He also pledged to backfill funding in states where Republican governors penalize teachers or administrators for imposing COVID-19 rules and vowed to provide the Food and Drug Administration with resources to speed up the review of vaccines for children younger than 12.
• The plan spends $2 billion on 280 million rapid COVID-19 tests for use in congregate settings such as jails and homeless shelters. Walmart, Amazon and Kroger have agreed to provide rapid tests at cost, meaning consumers should see a 35% price cut by the end of the week.
• To bolster businesses, the plan allows smaller employers to borrow up to $2 million from the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, instead of $500,000, to hire and retain employees or purchase equipment. The government will send prefilled, streamlined forms to businesses that retained employees under the Paycheck Protection Program and want loans forgiven.
• The government will continue to send “surge response teams” to help intensive care units in locales reeling from the delta variant and increase shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments by 50% in September to keep people out of hospitals.
Mr. Biden’s focus on COVID-19 is part of a broader pivot toward domestic issues after his chaotic wind-down of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Thirteen service members were killed during the evacuation, and some Americans are still trying to get out of the country, piercing Mr. Biden’s pledge to bring competence to Washington.
Bruised and battered from the foreign debacle, the president focused on damage from Hurricane Ida in Louisiana and its remnants in New Jersey and New York, yet the COVID-19 pandemic looms as the biggest challenge of his presidency.
The administration latched onto a bit of positive news: The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped to 310,000 from 345,000 last week, a pandemic low.
Only 53% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, although 75% of eligible Americans — those ages 12 and older — have received at least one dose. That leaves tens of millions of people on the sidelines. Mr. Biden blamed, without naming, politicians for encouraging that.
“Many of us are frustrated with the 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated, even though the vaccine is safe, effective and free,” Mr. Biden said. “The unvaccinated overcrowd our hospitals, they’re overrunning emergency rooms and intensive care units, leaving no room for someone with a heart attack, or pancreatitis or cancer.”
Then he went political.
“A distinct minority of Americans supported by a distinct minority of elected officials are keeping us from turning the corner,” Mr. Biden said. “These pandemic politics, as I refer to them, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die. We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who’ve done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”
The internet is full of falsehoods about the vaccines, such as the claim that it scrambles a person’s genetic code. The messenger-RNA instructions do not enter the cell’s nucleus, where DNA is stored.
Many holdouts say they are worried about the unknown, given the novelty of the technology and how quickly it was adapted into a COVID-19 vaccine last year.
The potential for side effects is the No. 1 reason given to pollsters tracking hesitancy.
Many say they want more time to see how the shots affect people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The foundation found that conversations with family members and trusted friends are often the most persuasive in getting people to roll up their sleeves.
The push to mandate the shots for federal workers is a hurry-up-and-wait situation. Employees won’t have the standing to sue until they face the consequences for remaining unvaccinated, said Stephanie Rapp-Tully, a partner at the Tully Rinckey PLLC law firm who is tracking the issue.
“I’m not surprised that they’re going away from the testing option just because looking at the logistics would be very, very, cumbersome,” she said.
“On the whole, the vaccine mandate is still in accordance with federal law, with a couple of caveats. I think there is going to be a large amount of litigation coming from the unions, and negotiating on collective bargaining agreement is going to be at the forefront of the legal push on this mandate,” she said.