WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday announced sweeping new pandemic requirements aimed at boosting vaccination rates for millions of federal workers and contractors as he lamented the “American tragedy” of rising-yet-preventable deaths among the unvaccinated.
Federal workers will be required to sign forms attesting they've been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else comply with new rules on mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing and more. The strict new guidelines are aimed at increasing sluggish vaccination rates among the huge number of Americans who draw federal paychecks – and to set an example for private employers around the country.
“Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say, 'If I'd just got the vaccine,'” Biden said in a somber address from the East Room of the White House. “This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don't have to die.”
However, pushback is certain to Biden's action. It puts him squarely in the center of a fierce political debate surrounding the government's ability to compel Americans to follow public health guidelines.
The federal government directly employs about 4 million people, but Biden's action could affect many more when federal contractors are factored in. New York University professor of public service Paul Light estimates there are nearly 7 million more employees who could potentially be included, combining those who work for companies that contract with the government and those working under federal grants.
Biden, seemingly fed up with persistent vaccine resistance among many Americans, delivered a sharp rebuke to those who have yet to get shots, saying “they get sick and fill up our hospitals,” taking beds away from others who need them.
“If in fact you are unvaccinated, you present a problem to yourself, to your family and those with whom you work,” he said bluntly.
At the same time, he expressed sympathy for people who have received their shots and are “frustrated with the consequences of the minority that fail to get vaccinated.” And he again emphasized that the fight against the virus is far from over, girding Americans to remain strong in the face of setbacks in the pandemic.
“I know this is hard to hear. I know it's frustrating. I know it's exhausting to think we're still in this fight. I know we hoped this would be a simple straightforward line, without problems or new challenges. But that isn't real life,” he said.
His comments came as some 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated. He had set a July 4 goal to get at least one shot in 70% of adults. The latest figure is 69.3%.
And there remains significant resistance from many Republicans and some unions to vaccine mandates for employers.
Reflecting an awareness of the political landmines surrounding mandates, administration officials emphasize their plan does not require workers to receive the vaccine but aims to make life more difficult for those who are unvaccinated to encourage them to comply.
He also directed the Defense Department to look into adding the COVID-19 shot to its list of required vaccinations for members of the military. Service members already are required to get as many as 17 vaccines, depending on where they are based around the world.
Over and over, the president repeated that the vast majority of those falling ill and dying in the new wave of the delta virus are unvaccinated, putting others at risk and endangering the nation's fragile economic recovery and return to normalcy.
“It's an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American. It's such a shame to squander that blessing,” Biden said.
He praised the recent increase in Republican lawmakers urging those who are not vaccinated – many of whom, polling suggests, identify as conservatives – to get their shots. And seeking to push back against skepticism among some Republicans over the safety of the vaccine, he gave a nod to predecessor Donald Trump, noting that it was “developed and authorized under a Republican administration.”
“This is not about red states and blue states,” he said. “It's literally about life and death, life and death.”
Biden renewed his calls for schools to fully open this fall, though children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
The administration hopes Thursday's move will nudge private companies to push their workers harder to get vaccines that, while widely recognized as safe and effective, have yet to receive full approval from the FDA.