WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will require federal employees to wear masks, physically distance from others in the workplace and get tested regularly if they’re not willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The new rules place the federal government, the country’s largest employer, at the forefront of efforts to boost vaccination rates by applying pressure at offices and other job sites. Some private companies and local governments have already announced similar policies.
And they reflect a frustration with dragging vaccination rates and fears over the more contagious delta variant, which has increased caseloads.
“We have the tools to prevent this new wave of COVID,” Biden said Thursday, where he announced the new rules, as well as new incentives, from the East Room of the White House.
“You want to know how we put this virus behind us? I’ll tell you how. We need to get more people vaccinated.”
More than 2 million civilian federal workers who live around the country will be affected by the mandate. The rules will also apply to contractors employed at federal sites. The White House is working on applying the same standard to all federal contractors.
Such a requirement could land heavily in California, which has the most federal workers outside of the Washington, D.C., area, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
More than 1.4 million uniformed military personnel will not yet be affected, but Biden is directing the Pentagon to detail when it will add the coronavirus shots to the list of required vaccinations for members of the armed forces.
Biden’s announcement included other steps intended to increase vaccinations. Washington will reimburse small- and medium-sized businesses that grant paid leave to employees who are helping get their children or other family members vaccinated. Biden is also asking schools to host clinics to help get students vaccinated. The shots are currently approved for children as young as 12.
Shortly before Biden’s scheduled announcement, the Treasury Department said state and local governments could use American Rescue Plan funds to pay $100 to newly vaccinated people as further incentive for people to get their shots.
The White House has previously been wary of any kind of vaccine requirements, preferring to focus on making the shots easily accessible and nudging people toward getting inoculated.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced its own vaccine requirement this week for the agency’s health care workers and gave them eight weeks to comply.
Similar steps are also being taken by private companies and local governments. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that city workers would need to submit proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing.
“We need unvaccinated Angelenos to stop dragging their feet,” City Council President Nury Martinez said. “As the largest employer in the city of Los Angeles, this is us doing our part.”
Google said Wednesday that it would require its employees to get vaccinated before returning to the company’s offices around the world.
Mandates or vaccine passports have been controversial ideas, especially with some Republicans and right-wing commentators dialing up the outrage over heavy-handed government initiatives.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that some people are “sort of allergic” to mandates of any kind.
“I don’t want to turn them off,” she said in an interview with Dr. Marc Siegel on SiriusXM’s “Doctor Radio Reports.”
Her agency already faced some backlash Tuesday when it recommended that people wear masks indoors in public settings in areas where COVID-19 is surging, even though it does not have the authority to require Americans to follow its guidance.
Walensky said that requiring vaccines at this point could be tricky because the Food and Drug Administration has authorized them only on an emergency basis and the full approval process could last several more months.
However, she added that she would “endorse any way that we can get more people vaccinated to prevent severe disease and death.”
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said she worried earlier this year that vaccine mandates could backfire.
“We’re at a different place than we were then,” she said. “I can see employers deciding, we have to get back to business.”
She said it was particularly important to require health care workers or nursing home employees to get their shots.
“It’s just simply too risky to not have staff in those places vaccinated,” Nuzzo said.
The country remains just shy of Biden’s goal to have 70% of adults receive at least one shot by July 4, a reflection of how difficult it can be to reach and convince holdouts.
“What we have now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Biden said after touring a Mack Trucks facility in Pennsylvania. “Please, please, please, if you’re not vaccinated, protect yourself and the children out there.”
The White House highlighted a glimmer of progress Wednesday, saying nearly 500,000 people received their first dose of a vaccine, the highest number since the beginning of the month.