WASHINGTON — President Biden announced in a speech Thursday that all federal employees and contractors are now required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face regular testing before returning to in-person work, and he also encouraged states and localities to pay $100 to each newly vaccinated American.
“You want to know how we put this virus behind us? I’ll tell you how. We need to get more people vaccinated,” Biden said.
“I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have already gotten vaccinated already,” Biden later added. “But here’s the deal: If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them. We all benefit when we can get more people vaccinated.”
Biden’s mandate and his pushing of cash incentives comes as the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to drive up infections across the country, with the District of Columbia among the many areas of “substantial” spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mandate for federal employees and contractors also requires them to adhere to mitigation efforts, such as regular testing.
The federal government employs nearly 2 million people in its civilian workforce. This mandate does not yet extend to members of the military, though Biden has directed the Department of Defense to see how requirements and mitigation efforts can be safely met within all the service branches.
Federal employees and contractors who are unable to attest to their vaccination status will undergo regular coronavirus testing, will be required to wear a mask and will likely be unable to travel, Biden said.
“We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen quickly and more successfully,” he added.
D.C.’s infection rate remains high and growing, seeing an average of 52 cases per day in the past week, a 172 percent increase from weeks prior, according to data from the New York Times. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Thursday that the city will return to mask mandates indoors beginning this weekend for everyone over 2 years old, regardless of vaccination status, reversing her June decision to loosen COVID-19 restrictions.
Other high-transmission states, such as California and Nevada, are also reinstituting their indoor masking requirements.
Stricter mitigation efforts are returning to White House grounds too. Visitors and staff are again required to wear masks when on site despite vaccination status.
The White House and Congress had lifted masking restrictions for vaccinated staff, guests and reporters in May, based on CDC recommendations at the time. The White House encouraged unvaccinated individuals to wear a mask but required no proof of vaccination to enter the building.
Just last week, a White House staffer and a Capitol Hill staffer who interacted with 60 Texas Democrats visiting D.C. contracted the virus. Six of those Texas Democrats — all vaccinated — have since tested positive.
The administration previously has been hesitant to issue coronavirus mandates, and press secretary Jen Psaki denied rumors about potential vaccination travel requirements, often referred to as “vaccine passports.”
Instead, the White House has supported various vaccination incentives, which range from free doughnuts at fast food restaurants to thousands of dollars in statewide cash prize lotteries. But incentives were not enough to motivate a large swath of Americans, and many parts of the country fell well behind Biden’s goal of having at least 70 percent of adults receive at least one vaccine dose by Independence Day. Thursday’s announcement may telegraph a new willingness to embrace more rigid governmentwide guidelines.
“We have tools to prevent this new wave of COVID. From shutting down our businesses, our schools, our society, as what happened last year,” said Biden.
In the meantime, senior members of Biden’s coronavirus team, as well as the president himself, have recently stressed how the latest uptick in infections and hospitalizations illustrate how the current state of affairs is a pandemic of the unvaccinated. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recounted the “tragic” reality Tuesday, explaining “nearly every death, especially among adults, due to COVID-19 is, at this point, entirely preventable.”
During a CNN town hall in Ohio earlier this month, Biden urged viewers to get the shot. “If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalized. You’re not going to be in an ICU unit. And you are not going to die,” he said.
Recent clinical data lends credence to Biden’s claims. The CDC reports that less than 1 percent of current coronavirus deaths are from vaccinated individuals and only slightly more than 1 percent of fully vaccinated individuals report breakthrough infection.
Biden called the uptick in sickness of the unvaccinated an American tragedy.
“People are dying and will die who don’t have to die. If you’re out there unvaccinated, you don’t have to die,” Biden said. “Right now too many people are dying or watching someone they love dying.”
While Biden repeated his adage that vaccines are apolitical, GOP-led states are among those with the highest infection rates and spread, and Republicans have higher rates of vaccine hesitancy.
“The vaccine was developed and authorized under a Republican administration and it has been distributed and administered under a Democratic administration,” Biden said.
“With freedom comes responsibility,” he added. “So please, exercise responsible judgment.”
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