The White House is set to announce the largest vaccine mandate in modern history in the coming days in response to growing concern over the Delta variant of COVID-19, the latest and most abrupt change in a pandemic response strategy that has yet to get the virus under control.
Federal workers and contractors will soon be required to prove that they are fully vaccinated, or will otherwise be required to wear masks and undergo routine COVID-19 testing, according to a source familiar with the upcoming mandate. But public health experts told The Daily Beast that the guidance comes months too late and after dozens of public health organizations had called for a regimented system for tracking vaccine status.
Now, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention having released new guidelines requesting that even fully vaccinated people wear masks in areas with “a substantial level of community transmission”—an area that now includes Washington, D.C.—public health experts say the administration’s past approach to vaccines at the White House exemplifies its hands-off approach to vaccine mandates around the country.
“This has been the Achilles’ heel of the Biden administration’s COVID response—its utter failure to support and advocate for proof-of-vaccination systems,” said Professor Larry Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law Center. Gostin, who has called on the president to use the powers at his disposal to mandate vaccinations wherever he can, called Biden’s approach to vaccine mandates “completely hands-off,” to the nation’s detriment.
“The CDC has not given one jot of technical guidance or funding to support state and local governments, businesses, and universities in implementing mandatory vaccinations,” Gostin said, “and that’s shown in the White House itself.”
The White House’s own guidelines on COVID-19 vaccination have been a source of increasing anxiety among staffers and visitors alike. Though the White House is usually described as the single most secure building in the world, vaccination statuses have remained almost ludicrously underpoliced, despite the virus having come close to killing the last president. While those entering the White House complex are asked to present numerous forms of identification and undergo passes through multiple metal detectors in order to verify their identity and relative harmlessness, the administration has left the question of vaccination status entirely up to the honor system.
The threat of the Delta variant and rising caseloads across the country appears to have shifted the administration’s view of vaccine mandates in recent days. President Joe Biden is planning to announce on Thursday a requirement that all federal employees and contractors be fully vaccinated, or else be required to socially distance and undergo regular testing for the virus while at work—a plan that public health advocates say is long overdue.
“You should either be vaccinated and be able to prove that you’re vaccinated or you should be wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and of Medicine. “That to me seems like a very reasonable protocol for the White House.”
But until this week, the White House’s approach to vaccination has been the equivalent of a “Keep Off the Grass” sign: it’s a sign, not a cop.
For example, the White House requires that pool reporters—those who track the movements of the president, vice president, first lady and second gentleman throughout the day—be tested for COVID-19 at a nearby testing facility, but the wristbands denoting a person’s “tested” status are almost never checked. Until Wednesday, when the CDC’s new guidelines put the nation’s capital in the high-transmission category, vaccinated staffers and reporters were allowed to unmask inside the White House, despite some members of the press corps expressing serious, retweeting-Alex-Berenson-level contempt for vaccination and mask ordinances.
Although the White House does test those expected to be in close contact with the president, proof of vaccination is effectively “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Biden himself has noted that the White House does not track the vaccination status of visitors. During an event honoring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for their Super Bowl victory last week, Biden turned to the assembled football players to urge “you all who don’t have a shot, man—get one, okay? Get one. Get one.”
A few minutes later, Biden joined the players in a tight scrum, shoulder-to-shoulder and shaking with people whose vaccination statuses were a mystery.
(In fairness to both Biden and the Bucs, the National Football League actually has stricter standards for COVID-19 outbreaks and vaccination mandates than the federal government at the moment.)
With mandatory masks returning to the campus on Wednesday, public health experts told The Daily Beast that it makes zero sense from a public health perspective to not mandate that White House staffers and visitors alike be fully vaccinated—and prepared to prove it.
“If you look at the benefit-risk balance, it’s very clear what should be done: everybody should be vaccinated,” said Brewer. “So really what’s driving these protocols, or lack thereof, are not the public health considerations. They’re the political considerations.”
The White House did not respond to questions about its decision not to ask for proof of vaccination status from visitors, reporters or staffers, although one administration staffer texted The Daily Beast that they had already taken a photo of their vaccine card in anticipation of having to demonstrate their status in the near future.
According to those familiar with internal conversations about COVID-19 protocols, the White House has been quietly adjusting its practices in recent weeks as the highly infectious Delta variant has become the nation’s most dominant strain and as small outbreaks among staff in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building has worried staffers terrified of repeating President Donald Trump’s superspreader garden party last year. Three people who had in-person meetings scheduled at the White House or the EEOB over the past week told The Daily Beast that their appointments were pushed to digital conferences at the last minute, with fear of breakthrough cases cited as the reason.
“I was told that only ‘critical’ meetings are happening IRL,” one person who had a meeting pushed to Zoom told The Daily Beast. “But then you see [presidential advisor Steve] Ricchetti meeting with Republicans on the Hill, which means they can’t be that terrified of Delta, because if anybody has it, it’s congressional Republicans.”
But in other ways, the White House’s protocols on COVID-19 have remained unchanged. One congressional staffer told The Daily Beast that White House liaisons have continued participating in normal in-person meetings on Capitol Hill, which they supposed indicated that if there is concern about breakthrough cases, the concern is more about potential Trump-like spread within the executive branch.
Until this week, when the administration announced that health workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs will be required to be fully vaccinated, the White House has repeatedly dodged the issue of instituting mandatory vaccine requirements. Asked on Tuesday why the federal government had not yet mandated vaccinations for all employees and contractors, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that while the government would “continue to look at ways to protect our workforce and to save more lives,” there were no announcements to preview.
Hours later, of course, CNN broke the news that Biden would announce mandatory vaccinations for most federal workers and contractors (with the notable exception of members of the U.S. military, which Brewer called “absolutely crazy”). Biden, asked about the potential policy, told a pool reporter on Tuesday that the policy was still “under consideration right now, but if you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were.”
The new mandate means that months after vaccines first became available, White House staffers will now be required to show proof of their full vaccination status—although there is no word on whether visitors or reporters who engage in close contact with White House staff and principals will be required to do so.
According to Gostin, the announcement could be a “gamechanger”—but it also comes far too late to prevent backsliding into mask mandates and social distancing requirements in public spaces.
“It’s coming too late, and it’s unconvincing,” Gostin said. “What we’re seeing now in the United States was fully foreseeable a month or two ago—we actually saw it playing out in the U.K., in Israel, in Europe. The CDC has now flip-flopped three times, with three different recommendations in three months about masks, which is head spinning for the general public.”
But the Biden administration’s fear of feeding lunatic narratives that government goons are knocking down doors in order to force vaccines on everyday Americans, experts said, has ignored a powerful tool for encouraging vaccines: the desire to return to normal life.
“We need to really reward people for being vaccinated and make it onerous for people who choose not to,” said Brewer. “Nobody screams much anymore about the fact that they can’t smoke in buildings and restaurants and bars… and I think we’re clearly there with COVID vaccination.”
“Nobody’s going to comply with this guideline, but they will comply with a mandate by a business, university or government,” Gostin said. “If you give somebody the choice between testing once or twice weekly and masking on the one hand, and getting the jab on the other, people are going to roll up their sleeves.”