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, and is still not quite there. 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 that 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. Biden directed his team to take steps to apply similar requirements to all federal contractors.
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," said Biden.
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, although children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. And he said that public health officials do not yet believe Americans need a booster vaccine despite the highly contagious delta variant fueling the surge.
The new pressure on workers to get vaccinated could work because evidence shows people would rather get the vaccine than deal with burdens they consider onerous at work, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University Law School.
“People would much rather roll up their sleeves and get a jab, than undergo weekly testing and universal masking,” he said. “In many ways, this is really not a mandate, it’s giving workers a choice.”
Thursday's move is not just about federal workers.
The administration hopes it will nudge private companies push their workers harder to get vaccines that, while widely recognized as safe and effective, have yet to receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
“I think we’ve reached this tipping point, and Biden’s announcement will provide a lot of air cover for companies and boards of directors who have difficult decisions facing them," said Jeff Hyman, a Chicago-based business author and recruiter for start-up companies.
Some of the nation’s biggest corporations have moved to require vaccinations for their workers. Tech giants Facebook and Google announced this week their employees would have to show proof they’ve been fully vaccinated before returning to work.
Delta and United airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are requiring workers to disclose their vaccination status though not requiring them to be vaccinated.
But fewer than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by the research firm Gartner.
Still, there is opposition.
State lawmakers across the U.S. have introduced more than 100 bills aiming to prohibit employers from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. At least six states have approved such bills.
The Justice Department and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have both said no federal laws prevent businesses from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment and the federal policy would take precedent. But the “medical freedom” bills underscore the resistance such guidance may encounter at the state level.
Government actions in New York City and California have faced resistance from local unions. And prior to Biden’s announcement, some national unions were speaking out against it.
Larry Cosme, President of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents 30,000 federal officers and agents, said in a statement while the organization supports the vaccine it opposes compelling it.
“Forcing people to undertake a medical procedure is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it,” he said.