WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday, Sept. 9, took aim at vaccine resistance in America, announcing policies requiring most federal employees to get COVID-19 vaccines and pushing large employers to have their workers vaccinated or tested weekly.
The new measures, which Biden laid out in remarks from the White House, would apply to about two-thirds of all U.S. employees, those who work for businesses with more than 100 workers.
"We've been patient," Biden told the millions of Americans who have declined to get coronavirus shots. "But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us."
Taken together, the policies and speech represented Biden's most aggressive steps yet to prod Americans resistant to getting shots amid a surge in COVID-19 cases from the fast-spreading delta variant.
The surge has posed increased risk not just to the country but also to a president who ran on promises to get control over the virus and who earlier this year said the country was "closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus."
Despite a full-throttled campaign by the Biden administration urging all eligible Americans to get the free vaccines, just over 53% of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Thursday, Biden warned that "we're in a tough stretch and it could last for a while."
Under Biden's plan, the administration will also require vaccinations for more than 17 million health care workers at hospitals and other institutions that participate in Medicare and Medicaid social programs for poor, disabled and older Americans, senior administration officials said.
The new vaccination requirements cover about 100 million workers, or about two-thirds of all workers in the United States, officials said.
The plan is likely to face legal challenges, and was immediately disparaged by Biden's Republican opposition. It could be months before the mandates' impact is felt.
Previously Biden, a Democrat, required federal employees be vaccinated or get tested. Now federal workers have 75 days to get vaccinated, or face termination unless they fall into limited exemption categories.
The U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration will issue its rule for private companies to require vaccines or tests in coming weeks. OSHA plans to take enforcement actions against those that did not comply, with substantial fines of nearly $14,000 per violation.
The medical work requirement will be implemented through a health agency rule that it plans to issue in October.
The administration also plans to ramp up testing capacity for the virus.
Biden will use his authority under the Defense Production Act to spur industry to accelerate production of the tests, and big retailers including Walmart, Amazon and Kroger will sell the tests at cost for the next three months to make them more affordable, the officials said.
Critics have said the Biden administration has not done enough on testing during its seven months in office.
The full recovery of the U.S economy depends on blunting the spread of the virus, which is a key health and political goal of the president, who entered the White House in January.
Federal workers unions suggested on Thursday they would accept the vaccine mandate.
More than 654,000 deaths
The disease has killed more than 654,000 people in the United States, and deaths and hospitalizations have been rising sharply as the easily transmissible delta variant of the virus spreads.
The White House COVID recovery plans and the projected U.S. economic rebound were based on the vast majority of eligible Americans being vaccinated this year. But the public health issue has become politicized, with a vocal minority refusing the shots and mask mandates, arguing that they are an infringement on their individual rights.
The spread of the delta variant has raised concerns as children head back to school, while also rattling investors, upending company return-to-office plans, and tamping down hiring.
Biden's plan also calls on large entertainment venues to require vaccination or testing for entry.
The White House plans to offer booster shots providing additional protection to those who are fully vaccinated. That goes against arguments from the World Health Organization and other advocates that say with global vaccine supplies limited, rich countries should pause booster programs until more people worldwide are inoculated.
But with delta causing more symptomatic breakthrough infections among fully inoculated individuals, most vaccinated Americans want a booster, a recent Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found. Boosters could begin the week of Sept. 20.
Abbott Laboratories and other test manufacturers are trying to boost production as cases soar, after having scaled back in recent months. CVS Health Corp. recently imposed limits on the number of at-home tests customers can buy.
The White House said the federal government cannot mandate vaccines nationwide, but it has encouraged school districts, businesses and other entities to require shots.
Reporting by Jeff Mason, Ahmed Aboulenein, David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Trevor Hunnicutt and Susan Heavey; Writing by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons, Bill Berkrot and Howard Goller.