President Biden on Thursday unveiled a series of new steps to combat the raging pandemic, including the announcement of a new rule that all businesses with 100 or more employees ensure that every worker is either fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing for the coronavirus.
“We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” Biden said in White House remarks. But, he added: “We can and we will turn the tide on COVID-19.”
Before discussing the new plan, Biden had sharp words for eligible unvaccinated Americans and officials trying to fight public health mandates.
“Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated,” he said, adding later: “We’ve been patient but our patience is running thin.”
The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will formally issue the rule in coming weeks, a senior administration official told reporters. The rule would apply to more than 80 million workers, Biden said.
Biden also announced that employers meeting the 100 worker threshold must give employees paid time off to get themselves or family members vaccinated.
“No one should lose pay in order to get vaccinated or take a loved one to get vaccinated,” he said.
The announcement is part of what the White House calls a new six-pronged strategy to contain the delta variant of the coronavirus as confirmed cases continue to surge across the country.
The vaccine mandate rule coming from the federal government, as opposed to being individually enforced, will shield employers from facing the brunt of potential blowback, said employment lawyer Brett Coburn of firm Alston & Bird.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of employers who chafe at this for a variety of reasons, but some employers I think may welcome it,” he said. “It kind of takes it out of their hands to some extent to say, ‘Sorry, OSHA said we have to do this and we have to follow what OSHA tells us.’
“The CDC gives us guidelines. OSHA gives us rules. And that’s a really important distinction,” Coburn said, noting that he has seen a growing number of companies in the last month move toward vaccine requirements.
Vaccine requirements for federal workers
Biden also announced that federal workers and contractors will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, eliminating an option for unvaccinated workers to be regularly tested instead.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said federal workers would have about 75 days to become fully vaccinated once Biden signs an executive order. She said that there would be limited exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
Some federal agencies will require proof of vaccination while others will accept attestations, Psaki said. Workers who fail to comply with the requirement will be counseled by their human resources departments, and then will face “progressive disciplinary action,” she said.
Similar steps for health workers and teachers
The president’s plan to combat the pandemic this fall has six main components, as detailed by a White House fact sheet.
Biden announced that 17 million health care workers at hospitals and other health care settings like dialysis clinics and home health agencies that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding will have to be vaccinated.
There will be similar requirements for teachers and staff at the Head Start early education program and other federally funded educational settings, such as schools on military bases.
The government also plans to boost access to home tests for COVID, buying nearly $2 billion in tests for a variety of settings ranging from shelters to food banks. Walmart, Amazon and Kroger will sell home tests at cost for the next three months, according to the fact sheet.
The Defense Department plans to send more teams to states where hospitals have reached capacity with COVID patients, and the government also will ship more monoclonal antibody treatments.
The COVID context
The speech comes as the United States has already recorded more than 40 million confirmed cases of the virus, with some 650,000 American lives lost as a result, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have spiked recently, due in large part to the delta variant, which experts say appears to be twice as transmissible as the highly contagious original strain.
The vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths in the current surge are among the unvaccinated. About a quarter of U.S. adults have not gotten a vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Biden has overseen ramped-up efforts to combat the virus through vaccinations and mask usage, but vaccine hesitancy — particularly among white Republicans — and the politicization of masks have hindered the nation in the fight to stamp out the virus.
And as children and teenagers return to school and the weather begins to cool, experts have warned that the country is likely to continue to see virus surges if more drastic steps are not taken.