Before President Joe Biden took office, he said he didn’t think vaccines should be mandatory. And he said in May that he didn’t think masks should be required for vaccinated people either.
But with the Delta variant of coronavirus continuing to spread, and more than 40 percent of Republicans refusing to get vaccinated, Biden is now preaching a different message.
On Thursday, Biden announced that vaccines would be mandatory for nearly all federal employees, and he said the Justice Department was looking into whether the government could mandate vaccines for the whole country. But mostly, Biden spent the majority of his nearly 30-minute address pleading with the unvaccinated to get their shots.
He highlighted new federal programs that will reimburse some employers who offer paid leave so that workers can get themselves and their families vaccinated, and he encouraged states to use money allocated from the American Rescue Plan to provide cash incentives to boost vaccination rates.
“In addition to providing incentives to encourage vaccination, it’s time to impose requirements on key groups, to make sure they’re vaccinated,” Biden said.
“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” he continued. “Anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated, will be required to mask, no matter where they work, test one or two times a week to see if they have acquired COVID, socially distance, and generally will not be allowed to travel for work.”
Biden added the administration was “taking steps” to apply the same standards to federal contractors.
But while the mandate could provide a blueprint for local governments and private businesses to implement their own vaccination requirements, there are major obstacles standing between the president’s directive and universal vaccination for government employees.
“Biden is now signaling to them that it’s lawful, and it’s effective, and that could be a game changer,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “The public are dazed and confused. I would be shocked if we saw a major change in behavior at the population level, and that’s why we need a mandate.”
The president stressed the need to re-implement mask mandates to stop the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, and he again urged the depoliticization of the vaccine process. In typical Biden fashion, he also thanked prominent Republicans who have actively worked to convince their constituents to get the shot.
“From the start, I have to compliment Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he hasn’t made it political, he’s encouraged people to get vaccinated and is continuing to do so in the states in pretty good shape,” Biden said, also praising Alabama Republican Gov.Kay Ivey, who recently encouraged vaccines.
“Look,” Biden added, “this is not about red states and blue states; it’s literally about life and death.”
States and cities around the country have implemented similar requirements in recent days, as did the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has ordered all 115,000 frontline health care workers to get vaccinated within the next two months.
Obstacles both bureaucratic and political, however, mean that Biden’s vaccine mandate is not yet as comprehensive as public health experts might hope—most notably in regards to the Department of Defense.
With nearly 1.4 million people in active duty service, and another 732,000 civilian personnel, the Pentagon is the nation’s single largest employer. But due to Department of Defense rules requiring that servicemembers give their “informed consent” to medical treatment, Biden’s vaccine mandate won’t apply to active duty personnel until the Food and Drug Administration officially approves the COVID-19 vaccines currently in use.
Troops are currently required to be vaccinated against more than a dozen illnesses, from chickenpox to rabies, depending on the location and duration of their employment, and while Biden could issue a waiver for the FDA approval requirement, he has publicly stated that he wants to put that decision in the hands of Pentagon leaders.
“I don’t know—I’m going to leave that to the military,” Biden told NBC News in April, calling the matter a “tough call” that he was not yet prepared to make. “I’m not saying I won’t. I think you’re going to see more and more of them getting it.”
Asked about the same issue on Thursday, Biden gave a similar answer, explaining that he remained committed to not pressuring the FDA for approval. But Biden said he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were considering the idea of mandating the vaccine before the approval process was complete.
“He’s open to it,” Biden said of Austin. “And the question is when is the right time to get the most bang for the buck when you do it. A lot of this is timing.”
Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and of Medicine, called the lag on a mandate for active duty military “silly.”
“That’s crazy—that’s absolutely crazy,” Brewer said. “In the military, you’re close together, you’re in tight groups, you’re spending lots of time together. Every single person that’s military should be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2.”
A fact sheet released before the president’s remarks noted that Biden has ordered the Department of Defense to “look into how and when they will add COVID-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military.” But the fact sheet outlines no timeline or process for doing so.
Although the military’s vaccination rate has actually outpaced that of the general population, some service members have reportedly expressed reluctance to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who has introduced legislation that would forbid the government from compelling members of the military to get vaccinated.
Massie’s bill, which has 28 cosponsors, is unlikely to become law, but it indicates the broader political problem facing Biden’s vaccine mandate push. While the lag time for military vaccinations could be resolved by the end of the summer—Army Times reported earlier this month that the U.S. Army had issued an internal notice ordering commanders to “prepare for a directive to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for service members” by September, “pending full FDA licensure”—the vaccine mandate faces steep opposition from some of the nation’s most powerful public-sector unions.
The American Postal Workers Union, which represents more than 200,000 postal workers, announced its opposition to Biden’s mandate before it was even formally announced, noting that while its leadership encourages postal workers to get vaccinated voluntarily, “it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent.”
The International Association of Fire Fighters, a close political ally of Biden’s, has also pushed back against mandates.
“We’re not doing any mandates. We’re not advocating any mandates for vaccination,” Tim Burn, press secretary for the IAFF, told Politico. “At this point we want to make sure that our members have what they need to stay safe on the job.”
Other unions stayed conspicuously quiet ahead of Biden’s announcement: the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 700,000 federal workers, initially did not comment on news of the proposed mandate, issuing a cautious statement on Thursday afternoon noting that the union expects details of the policy to be “properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation.”
“Based on today’s announcement, it is our understanding that under President Biden’s proposal the vast majority of federal employees would not have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment,” Everett Kelley, the union’s national president, said in a statement, “but that those who choose not to receive the vaccine may face certain restrictions.”
Biden’s announcement, just like mask-wearing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a change in both strategy and rhetoric from the federal government. Last year, Biden declared that he did not feel that vaccines should be mandatory, and he promised not to do so as president.
But continuously changing public guidances from the CDC, as well as the hardened opposition to vaccines from some conservatives, have made it clear that the government response needs to be more stick than carrot at this stage, public health experts said.
“You need to separate out what makes sense from a public health perspective from what makes sense from a political perspective,” said Brewer. “From a public health perspective, everybody should be vaccinated over the age of 12—they would mandate vaccinations for the whole country if the only thing you were basing it on was risk-benefit.”
As Biden exited the press conference, a reporter asked about the president’s declaration in May that “if you’ve been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask” and whether that still remained true.
A visibly annoyed Biden, who had already walked away from the podium, yelled back at the reporter, “It was true at the time!”
Just before he left the room, Biden explained the lack of vaccinations, paired with the rise of the new variant, had changed the situation.
“What happened was, this variant came along, they didn’t get vaccinated, it was spread more rapidly, and more people were getting sick,” he said.