In a speech this afternoon, President Joe Biden laid out a course of action for containing the once-again resurgent pandemic in the U.S. Among other things, the administration will enforce vaccine mandates for the majority of federal employees and contractors, and they’ll put strong pressure on private businesses to mandate vaccines for their staff as well, especially health care facilities. These actions are expected to cover two-thirds of the work force, or around 100 million Americans.
The country is currently seeing about 150,000 reported cases and over 1,000 deaths a day, while more than 100,000 Americans are hospitalized. In total, at least 650,000 Americans have died from covid-19, inching closer to the death toll of the Spanish flu — the deadliest pandemic in the U.S. ever recorded. The spread of the pandemic during this latest wave has been aided by the Delta variant, a more transmissible and possibly more virulent strain of the coronavirus. New daily cases do seem to be slowing down, hopefully indicating the impending decline of this latest peak. But with the arrival of fall and kids returning to schools, there remains concern that many more Americans will die from the pandemic before the end of the year.
Biden outlined six major policies as part of his initiative to bring the pandemic under control, with a particular focus on raising the vaccination rate.
The most direct action will be executive orders mandating vaccination for most parts of the federal government, with possible disciplinary action for those who refuse. The orders will cover millions of full-time workers and contractors (including 300,000 educators) across the executive branch, all federal agencies, and the armed services. A much smaller number of employees who work for federal judges or Congress will be not covered by the mandate, however, and there will be religious or medical exceptions allowed. Biden had previously called for more vaccinations among federal employees, but that plan would have allowed unvaccinated employees to get regular testing instead.
The administration is also planning to require that hospitals and other health care facilities receiving federal Medicare or Medicaid funding get 100% per cent of their staff vaccinated, which is estimated to affect 17 million employees. And Biden will push the Department of Labour to institute a rule for employers with over 100 employees to have a requirement for workers to either get vaccinated and/or tested weekly, covering another 80 million workers or so. Companies that fail to abide by the rule will be subject to fines of $US14,000 ($18,970) per violation, though there will be a grace period for compliance, and companies will be required to provide their employees time off for vaccination. In his speech, Biden additionally called for large entertainment venues to enforce similar mandates.
“My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see?” said Biden in a direct plea to unvaccinated Americans, referencing the recent FDA approval and lower rates of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths among the vaccinated. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is running thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.”
Covid-19 vaccines continue to provide highly effective protection against serious illness from Delta, and the vast majority of those being hospitalized or dying are unvaccinated. About 73% of all eligible Americans over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of a vaccine, including 92% of seniors over 65. But only 53% of all Americans are fully vaccinated — a rate below many other high- and middle-income countries, including some that began their rollout later than the U.S. did last December.
Biden clarified the administration’s current stance on booster shots. He stated that the government is still hoping to recommend boosters soon for the general public, possibly as early as September 20. But he reiterated that any plan will first require approval by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Once that approval is made, he promised that a ready supply of boosters will be available to all Americans who want it.
In addition to mandates, Biden stated that the government will increase the supply of tests and other resources to combat the pandemic. The administration has worked out a deal with several retailers, including Walmart, Amazon, and Kroger, to sell cheap at-home testing kits for the next three months starting this week. The government also plans to increase by 50% its weekly shipments of monoclonal antibody treatments to hospitals and elsewhere, and it will expand the pool of healthcare providers eligible to dispense these treatments, including pharmacists. These treatments are thought to help prevent covid-19 cases from worsening when given early enough.
Biden pledged to send more federal support to schools to help with testing, masking, and other safety measures. And he added that the federal government would step in to aid schools that are being forced by local laws to not institute safety measures.
Federal programs providing small business loans are also expected to be expanded and made more flexible as well. And the White House is preparing to double the current federal fines for not masking on airlines.
One thing the White House will not be doing is getting behind the sort of restrictions on movement and distancing seen last winter. “The policies outlined throughout this plan will ensure that we do not return to lockdowns and shutdowns,” states a White House page outlining the new initiative.
According to the New York Times, some unions of federal workers may decide to legally challenge these mandates, and other parts of the initiative may face their own legal challenges. But Biden stressed that his underlying message was one of hope.
“We have the tools, now we just have to finish the job,” he said.