President Joe Biden has announced sweeping federal Covid measures that require workers at large companies to be vaccinated or face weekly testing.
The new measures – which also include a vaccine mandate for millions of federal workers – come as the president is under fire to combat a Covid surge.
Covid has killed 650,000 Americans and hospitals nationwide are at capacity.
Mr Biden had promised a “summer of freedom” from the virus. But the Delta variant has instead run rampant.
In an address made from the White House on Thursday, Mr Biden directed the Department of Labor to require all private businesses with 100 or more workers to mandate the jab or require proof of a negative Covid test from employees at least once a week. The order will affect around 80m workers.
“This is not about freedom, or personal choice, it’s about protecting yourself and those around you,” he said as he unveiled the six-point plan.
Nearly 17m other healthcare workers at facilities receiving federal benefits will also face the same requirements, he said.
The time for sweet-talking, for cajoling Americans to take the Covid-19 vaccine is over. The time for government mandates has arrived.
That was the blunt message Joe Biden delivered to the nation on Thursday afternoon. While many Americans have received at least one jab, the president laid the blame for the continued US health crises squarely at the feet of the 25% of the public who are unvaccinated and the politicians who he said are “actively working to undermine the fight”.
Biden said his new vaccine orders were not about freedom or personal choice, but that’s exactly how some Americans will view them – as a forced choice between vaccination and continued employment. And while the mandates will increase the number of vaccinated Americans, it will also enflame a debate already rife with political tension.
In July, Biden gave an optimistic speech about how Americans soon would be declaring their “independence” from the virus. Because of the Delta variant, that independence day has failed to arrive. This, in turn, has taken a toll on the US economy and public perceptions of how Biden is handling the pandemic. This is Biden’s bid to use government muscle to turn the tide.
Biden’s new Covid plan
The president’s plan uses the full force of his executive power to mandate the jab for unvaccinated Americans.
Some of his initiatives address common concerns of Americans who have yet to get the vaccine – such as not wanting to miss work to get the jab or recover from side effects.
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The president said that requirements that large businesses provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated will be unveiled in the coming weeks by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha).
Businesses that do not comply with the new rules may face thousands of dollars in fines per violation.
A separate federal mandate, which the White House says will impact 2.5m government workers, supersedes Mr Biden’s earlier order that permitted government employees to undergo regular testing if they did not wish to be vaccinated. Now workers that refuse the jab may be fired.
Overall, the rule now requires that around two-thirds of all US workers be vaccinated.
Thousands of mostly unvaccinated Americans are still dying every week and approximately 80m are still unvaccinated, dealing a blow to Mr Biden’s hope that a successful pandemic response would bolster support for the Democratic president.
Other rules that Mr Biden directed include:
- A doubling of fines for passengers on planes who refuse to wear a mask
- Invoking the Defense Production Act to speed the creation of fast at-home testing kits
- Deploying healthcare workers to areas experiencing surges
- Increasing the weekly pace of shipments of free monoclonal antibody treatment to hospitals
The state of Covid and vaccines in the US
But despite the Delta-caused surge, deaths are still down in most places from their high last winter. However some places with relatively low jab rates have recently recorded their highest infections rates yet.
“The path ahead, even with the Delta variant, is not nearly as bad as last winter,” Mr Biden said in Thursday’s remarks.
“What it makes it incredibly frustrating is that a distinct minority of Americans are keeping us from turning the corner.”