US president Joe Biden said he would order all executive branch employees, federal contractors and millions of healthcare workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and that his administration would issue rules requiring large private employers to mandate shots or testing.
The new measures are Mr Biden’s response to a surge in infections driven by the Delta variant of the virus and by tens of millions of Americans who have refused to be vaccinated. Federal employees who do not comply could be dismissed, the White House said, and private employers could face fines.
Mr Biden also delivered some of his harshest criticism yet of the 25 per cent of American adults who so far have not been inoculated, saying that they are dragging out the pandemic that has claimed more than 650,000 lives in the US.
“My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see?” he said. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us, so please, do the right thing.”
His latest plan, the president said, would “combat those blocking public health” and also “protects our economy and will make our kids safer in schools.”
The directives mark a significant hardening of the administration’s position on vaccine mandates amid the surge by the Delta variant that threatens to overwhelm hospitals in parts of the US.
The federal workforce mandate faced a muted initial reaction, with business and labour groups issuing cautious responses and saying they would work with the administration.
Under Mr Biden’s new approach, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will develop an emergency regulation requiring companies with 100 or more employees to require staff to be vaccinated or tested weekly, and to give paid time off to get inoculated.
Employers could face fines of nearly $14,000 per violation, one official said. It is expected to take effect in the coming weeks, the official added.
“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Mr Biden said in a speech from the White House – a swipe at Republican elected officials, including some governors, who have said the opposite.
“It’s about protecting yourself and those around you. The people you work with. The people you care about, the people you love. My job as president is to protect all Americans,” Mr Biden said.
Biden will also require vaccinations for more than 17 million healthcare workers at Medicare and Medicaid participating hospitals and in other healthcare settings, a significant expansion of an existing requirement aimed at nursing homes.
The federal government will require vaccinations for staff at Head Start and Early Head Start programs, teachers and staff at Department of Defense schools, and teachers and staff at schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education.
Mr Biden will call on states to require vaccines in all schools – a call sure to go unheeded in deeply Republican parts of the country – and on large entertainment venues to require patrons to prove vaccination or a negative test. He said he would boost weekly shipments of monoclonal antibodies to states by 50 per cent this month.
The executive branch is on strong footing to require staff vaccinations, particularly since the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine received full approval, rather than just emergency authorization, according to Glenn Cohen, a law professor at Harvard. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule is likely to face the most legal challenges, with likely litigation over whether the agency is exceeding its authority. – Bloomberg