Administration

Biden tells federal workers: Get vaccinated or submit to testing

President Biden on Thursday is directing all federal employees and onsite contractors to show that they are vaccinated or otherwise submit to regular coronavirus testing, a major step that will likely cause other private sector businesses to follow suit.

Biden is also instructing his administration to apply similar standards to all federal government contractors. The White House is also encouraging private sector employers to follow his lead. 

"If you want to do business with the fed government, get your workers vaccinated," Biden said in remarks from the White House Thursday afternoon.

The White House had previously tried to avoid tipping the scales by endorsing vaccine mandates for employers and other organizations. Thursday's announcement represents a sizable shift as the White House tries to convince more people to get vaccinated as COVID-19 cases rise due to the spread of the delta variant.

"With incentives and mandates, we can make a huge difference and save a lot of lives," Biden said.

A growing number of businesses have elected to mandate vaccines for employees as a condition of returning to in-person work. Several private colleges have done the same for their students. Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first public entity to require vaccines for its health care workers.

According to the White House, the federal government will ask employees and onsite contractors to attest to their vaccination status. Those who do not show that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will need to mask, socially distance and submit to weekly or twice weekly coronavirus testing. Biden also said that workers who are not vaccinated "generally will not be allowed to travel for work." 

Public health experts say that the new mandate could help drive up vaccination rates by setting a model for other businesses at a time when the delta variant is surging.

"We're at the point where some use of mandates is really important," said Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Health Lab.

Biden made clear he wants to see private companies and state governments mandate vaccinations as well.

"I'd like to see them continue to move in that direction," Biden said Thursday when asked by a reporter whether businesses and state governments should impose vaccine mandates.

"I asked the Justice Department to determine whether they are able to do that legally and they can - local communities can do that, local businesses can do that. It's still a question of whether the federal government can mandate the whole country. I don't know that yet," Biden said.

About 69 percent of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, but cases have risen in the U.S. as vaccination rates have leveled off.

White House officials have cheered an uptick in vaccinations in recent days. The U.S. recorded over 754,000 doses on Wednesday, its largest single day of vaccine doses since July 1. 

The federal government employs more than 4 million people. It's unclear what percentage of the workforce is not vaccinated against COVID-19.

"I don't have that number to share with you at that time," White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Thursday when asked for an estimate on how many federal government employees the administration believes are not vaccinated.

Biden's plans have triggered some pushback. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents 30,000 federal law enforcement officers across agencies, issued a statement ahead of Biden's speech stating that a vaccine mandate would represent a civil rights violation.

"FLEOA fully supports individuals who voluntarily choose to be vaccinated, agree that it is safe and the most effective means of combatting the pandemic, and encourage our members to be vaccinated," Larry Cosme, the association's president, said in a statement. "However, 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."

The Justice Department issued a legal opinion earlier this week saying that federal law does not prohibit private or public entities from mandating vaccines.

Some polls suggest that the American public is divided on vaccine mandates, though a new Morning Consult poll suggests they may be gaining steam. The survey found that a majority - 56 percent - of U.S. adults support coronavirus vaccine mandates for residents, employees or patrons.

Still, Biden's move is likely to provide fodder for Republicans who have forcefully criticized the administration this week over the decision by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  to recommend vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors in areas of the country where transmission of COVID-19 is high.

On Thursday, Biden is also directing the Pentagon to examine how and when they will mandate coronavirus vaccinations for members of the military. 

He also announced new incentives for vaccination, calling on state and local governments to offer $100 payments to newly vaccinated Americans using funds from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law passed in March.

Updated at 5:15 p.m. 

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