Before taking office, President Joe Biden said he would not support vaccine mandates to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and would instead use the power of his office to “encourage people to do the right thing.”
But as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus pushes the nation’s case rate to its highest levels since last winter—due in large part to a sizeable minority of the country refusing to “do the right thing”—Biden has issued the most comprehensive mandate for vaccination against the virus to date: all federal employees must be fully vaccinated within 75 days, with no carve-outs for testing of those who refuse to get the vaccine. The executive order signed on Thursday morning extends the requirements to all employees of the executive branch, as well as contractors working with the federal government.
“The time for waiting is over,” Biden said, noting the August approval of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration. “This is not about freedom or personal choice. It's about protecting yourself and those around you, the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love.”
Biden’s address on Thursday was the 17th of his presidency dedicated to the government’s COVID-19 response and vaccination program, according to a review of his past remarks—one of which, two months ago, celebrated America’s imminent independence from a pandemic that has since killed nearly 50,000 Americans.
“If you want to work for the federal government, you must be vaccinated,” a senior administration official told reporters in an embargoed briefing ahead of the president’s remarks. “If you want to do business with the federal government, you must vaccinate your workforce.”
Beyond the executive order, Biden announced a series of strict rules intended to make it harder for people to return to a normal life while dodging vaccination. Those include a rule being drafted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), requiring employers with more than 100 employees to require employees either be fully vaccinated or produce weekly negative tests—a rule that would theoretically expand vaccine requirements to more than 80 million private sector workers.
“Some of the biggest companies are already requiring this. United Airlines, Disney, Tyson's Food, and even Fox News,” Biden said. “The bottom line: We're going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers. We're going to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the share of the workforce that is vaccinated in businesses all across America.”
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will issue a similar requirement requiring workers in nearly all health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement—from hospitals to dialysis facilities— to be fully vaccinated. The rule will affect some 50,000 facilities and more than 17 million workers.
The stick-over-carrot approach will even extend to the skies, with the Transportation Safety Administration now doubling fines for travelers who refuse to mask aboard a commercial airplane.
All told, the efforts will extend vaccination requirements to nearly 100 million Americans, Biden said.
He also stressed the importance of keeping schools open and pleaded with parents with children 12 and older, who are eligible for the vaccine, to allow them to get the shot, and called on governors to provide COVID vaccines for students and staff. To parents whose children are not yet vaccinated, he urged patience.
“I strongly support independent scientific review for vaccine uses for children under 12,” he said. “ We can't take shortcuts to scientific work, but I've made it clear I will do everything within my power to support the FDA with any resource that it needs to continue to do this as safely and as quickly as possible.”
Biden took an aggressive posture toward Republican governors who have barred localities from making decisions about masking in school and pledged to “take on elected officials and states that are undermining” efforts to ensure children are protected from COVID-19 while in school.
“Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe, and a pandemic, while their governor picks a fight with them, and even threatens their salaries, other jobs,” Biden said. “If these governors won't help us beat the pandemic. I'll use my powers as president to get them out of the way.”
“The Department of Education has already begun to take legal action against states undermining protection local school officials have ordered, “ Biden said. “ Any teacher or school official whose pay has been held for doing the right thing, we will have that pay restored by the federal government 100 percent. I promise you, I will have your back.”
The rules reflect the president’s 180-degree shift on the notion of mandating vaccinations over the course of his nine-month presidency. After his election, Biden told reporters that he “wouldn't demand it to be mandatory” when it came to vaccines.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters ahead of that briefing that the changing approach to vaccine mandates has been necessitated by “a smart virus” that has continued to produce variants that can spread quickly and efficiently, as well as by Americans who have refused to get vaccinated against the virus.
“The reason we’re here is because people have not gotten vaccinated—eighty million of them,” Psaki told reporters, later adding that while employers would now be empowered to potentially fire workers who refuse to get vaccinated without a religious or medical exemption, “hopefully it doesn’t come to that.”
The Biden administration has defended its changing approach to the pandemic, from back-and-forth guidances on public masking to the slow rollout of vaccine mandates for federal workers, contractors, public servants, and even White House staff, noting that as the scientific understanding of the virus has changed, so too has the government response.
But public health experts have grown increasingly frustrated by an incrementalist approach that seems, at least occasionally, to be more mindful of the politics of the pandemic than of public health. Particularly as some state and local leaders have filled the vacuum with anti-vaccine messaging and a refusal to implement some bare-bones guidances on masks and vaccinations, the shifting response has experts warning of “pandemic fatigue.”
“Unfortunately, due to delta, we’ll probably go back to some of these blunt instruments,” said Dr. Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology and global health at the University of Michigan and a former adviser to the World Health Organization. “My colleagues who are now on the advisory committee seem to be pushing the most concrete rules except lockdowns. With pandemic fatigue and everything, it may be necessary.”