Biden pushes vaccine mandates protecting 100 million U.S. employees
President Joe Biden sternly outlined a broad plan Thursday to boost Covid-19 vaccination rates in the U.S. as cases plateau at dangerously high rates, pressuring private employers to immunize their workforce as well as mandating the shots for federal employees, contractors and health-care workers.
The nation is reporting an average of 151,500 new cases per day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, hovering around levels seen in late January. An average of 1,500 people are dying from Covid every day in the U.S., near fatality rates last seen in March when the U.S. was coming down from its winter surge, Hopkins data shows.
“Despite having an unprecedented and successful vaccination program, despite the fact that for almost five months, free vaccines have been available at 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot,” said Biden, who was clearly frustrated with the nation’s slow progress on vaccines.
While vaccination rates have picked up speed in recent weeks as the delta variant spurred a surge in cases, they remain a fraction of what they were in the early months of the vaccine rollout. The U.S. missed Biden’s Fourth of July goal to inoculate 70% of all adults by almost a month, and since then, has administered one dose or more to just 75.3% of Americans 18 and older, according to CDC data. Just over 54% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
In a speech addressing the nation, the president laid out a six-part plan intended to get more people vaccinated, allow schools to reopen safely, increase testing, improve care for patients and boost the economic recovery.
Biden said he was running out of patience waiting for unvaccinated Americans to get their shots.
“What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see? We’ve made vaccinations free, safe and convenient. the vaccine has FDA approval, over 200 million Americans have gotten at least one shot,” Biden said. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and the refusal has cost all of us. so please do the right thing.”
As part of the plan, the president announced a new requirement for federal employees to get a Covid vaccine, with no option for regular testing. He also signed an executive order extending the requirement to contractors that work with the U.S. government, impacting a total of 2.1 million employees. Biden had previously ordered all federal employees to prove their coronavirus vaccination status or submit to a series of rigorous safety protocols.
Biden also said he is asking the U.S. Department of Labor to issue a rule that requires employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccines or require weekly testing, according to officials.
“This requirement will impact over 80 million workers in private sector businesses with 100+ employees,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a statement. The agency, which falls under the Labor Department, is developing an emergency rule requiring those employers to provide paid time off for vaccinations or to recover from side effects from the shots.
Large U.S. corporations have increasingly mandated vaccines or announced penalties for workers who aren’t inoculated since Covid cases surged this summer. Policies currently vary at large airlines, which also act as government contractors, operating charter flights and other services. United Airlines will require all workers to be vaccinated this fall, while American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines warned staff who aren’t inoculated that they could lose pay protections.
Southwest Airlines, which has urged but not required staff to get vaccinated, said in a statement Thursday that it is “prepared to move toward compliance with the forthcoming U.S. Labor Department rule.”
Employees at health-care facilities that get Medicare and Medicaid funding will similarly have to be fully vaccinated against Covid.
Overall, the new vaccination requirements will cover about 100 million employees, affecting two-thirds of U.S. workers, Biden said.
As part of the plan to combat Covid, the administration is increasing the average weekly pace of shipments of free monoclonal antibody treatments for Covid by 50%, Biden said. It shipped more than 800,000 doses in July and August, a senior administration said on a call earlier Thursday.
The Transportation Security Administration is also planning to double fines for travelers who refuse to follow a federal mask mandate for air travel, a senior Biden administration official said. Fines will soon start at $500 and go up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.
Biden also called on all schools to set up regular testing when Covid is spreading in a community for students, faculty and staff who aren’t fully vaccinated.
The Department of Education will make additional funding available to help local school districts backfill salaries and other funding where it has been withheld by state leaders for implementing Covid safety measures, according to a senior administration official.
The plan also calls for allocating $2 billion toward the production of 280 million rapid and at-home Covid tests using the Defense Production Act. The plan expands the federal government’s free Covid testing program to 10,000 pharmacies nationwide and provides community health centers and foodbanks with 25 million free rapid tests to distribute.
Private businesses will also distribute discounted tests: Walmart, Amazon, and Kroger will start selling at-home Covid tests “at their costs for the next three months,” senior administration officials said. The discount will reportedly make the tests 35% cheaper for consumers.
“Together, these steps will ensure that every American, no matter their income level, can access free, convenient tests,” the officials said.
Despite the administration’s nationwide push for Covid vaccinations, just over 176 million Americans, or 53.3% of the total population, are fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The administration has already announced its plans to give out Covid vaccine booster shots later this month to those who are eight months out from their second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday the U.S. will likely start to widely distribute third Pfizer shots during the week of Sept. 20, but the rollout for Moderna’s could be delayed.
The Biden administration has also encouraged private businesses to implement vaccine mandates, though CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky previously told CNBC that federal officials would not issue a nationwide mandate.
— CNBC’s Amanda Macias, Leslie Josephs and Nate Rattner contributed to this report.