President Biden on Thursday unveiled a series of steps to combat the newly surging pandemic, including the announcement of a forthcoming federal rule that all businesses with 100 or more employees have to ensure that every worker is either vaccinated for COVID-19 or submit to weekly testing for the coronavirus.
"We're in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while," Biden conceded, as the delta variant of the coronavirus has caused cases, hospitalizations and deaths to rise across the country. But, he added: "We can and we will turn the tide on COVID-19."
Speaking from the White House, Biden said the new emergency rule for private sector employers, which will be issued by the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would apply to 80 million workers.
In total, he said the six-pronged strategy he unveiled Thursday would affect some 100 million Americans.
Biden also announced that businesses meeting the 100-worker threshold must give employees paid time off to get themselves or family members vaccinated.
Republicans decry the employer mandate
Many Republicans quickly condemned Biden's proposed rule as federal overreach.
The Republican National Committee on Thursday night announced its plan to sue the Biden administration.
"Forcing main street to vax or pay a fine will not only crush an economy he's put on life support—it's flat-out un-American," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., wrote on Twitter. "To Joe Biden, force is more important than freedom. Americans won't stand for it."
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement: "It is not the government's role to dictate to private businesses what to do. Once again President Biden is demonstrating his complete disregard for individual freedoms and states' rights. As long as I am governor, there will be no government vaccine mandates in Oklahoma."
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll last week found that 50% of U.S. adults support employers requiring vaccination to return to in-person work, while 44% do not. The poll did not ask about government mandates for businesses.
The vaccine mandate rule coming from the federal government, as opposed to being individually enforced, will shield many employers from facing the brunt of potential blowback, said employment lawyer Brett Coburn of firm Alston & Bird.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of employers who chafe at this for a variety of reasons, but some employers I think may welcome it," he said. "It kind of takes it out of their hands to some extent to say, 'Sorry, OSHA said we have to do this and we have to follow what OSHA tells us.'
"The CDC gives us guidelines. OSHA gives us rules. And that's a really important distinction," Coburn said, noting that he has seen a growing number of companies in the last month move toward vaccine requirements.
Vaccine requirements for federal workers
Among the other steps, Biden also announced that federal workers and contractors will be required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, eliminating an option laid out in July for unvaccinated employees to be regularly tested instead.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said federal workers would have about 75 days to become fully vaccinated, once Biden signed an executive order later Thursday. She said there would be limited exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
Some federal agencies will require proof of vaccination while others will accept attestations, Psaki said. Workers who fail to comply with the requirement will be counseled by their human resources departments, and then will face "progressive disciplinary action," she said.
Also announced Thursday, Biden said the Transportation Security Administration would now double the fines for travelers who refuse to wear masks, as public blowups in airports and aboard trains over mask mandates have become a frequent experience for employees of the travel industry.
"If you break the rules, be prepared to pay," Biden said. "And by the way, show some respect. The anger you see on television towards flight attendants and others doing their jobs is wrong. It's ugly."
Similar steps for health workers and teachers
Biden announced that 17 million health care workers at hospitals and other health care settings like dialysis clinics and home health agencies that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding will have to be vaccinated.
There will be similar requirements for teachers and staff at the Head Start early education program and other federally funded educational settings, such as schools on military bases.
The government also plans to boost access to home tests for COVID-19, buying nearly $2 billion in tests for a variety of settings ranging from shelters to food banks. Walmart, Amazon and Kroger will sell home tests at cost for the next three months, according to the White House plan.
The Defense Department plans to send more teams to states where hospitals have reached capacity with COVID patients, and the government also will ship more monoclonal antibody treatments.
"Our patience is running thin"
Biden delivered stern words to America's unvaccinated adults.
"Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated," he said, adding that "a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner."
About a quarter of U.S. adults have not gotten a vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see? We've made vaccinations free, safe and convenient," Biden said. "We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us. So please do the right thing."
The speech comes as the United States has already recorded more than 40 million confirmed cases of the virus, with some 650,000 American lives lost as a result, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have spiked recently, due in large part to the delta variant, which experts say appears to be twice as transmissible as the highly contagious original strain. The vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths in the current surge are among the unvaccinated.
Biden has overseen ramped-up efforts to combat the virus through vaccinations and mask usage, but vaccine hesitancy — particularly among white Republicans — and the politicization of masks have hindered the nation in the fight to stamp out the virus.
In his Thursday remarks, Biden also had sharp words for those lawmakers who he said trafficked in politicizing a public health matter.
"These pandemic politics, as I refer to them, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die," he said. "We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal."
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
More workers are going to have to get vaccinated for COVID-19. That's what President Biden is set to announce in a speech this afternoon. The White House sees these new rules as a way to contain the spread of the virus. That's with case numbers sky-high due to the delta variant and with hospitals grappling with yet another wave of patients. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin are both here to tell us more about what to expect from the speech this afternoon.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
DETROW: So, Tam, what do we expect to hear from the president?
KEITH: Selena and I listened in on a preview of the plan today with a senior administration official, and it's a series of measures that build on things the administration has announced before, in many cases making them tougher. The idea is to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and they have moved from persuasion to mandates in a couple of significant ways. Federal workers and contractors will no longer have the option to skip the vaccine and get tested instead. With very limited exceptions, vaccines will now be required.
The federal government is the country's largest employer, so that could be significant. But even more significant is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA is going to issue an emergency order saying that private employers with 100 or more workers will have to require vaccination or weekly testing. This will affect more than 80 million workers.
DETROW: This feels a long way from the free beer offers of this summer, but you mentioned private employers. Does the federal government have that power?
KEITH: Yeah. So I spoke with Brett Coburn. He's a labor and employment attorney in Atlanta who's been advising employers on COVID mandates. And he said companies do take orders from OSHA very seriously. And in his words, this is a big, big change.
BRETT COBURN: I'm sure there will be a lot of employers who chafe at this for a variety of reasons. But some employers, I think, may welcome it - right? - because it kind of takes it out of their hands to some extent to say, sorry, OSHA said we have to do this. And we have to follow what OSHA tells us. The CDC gives us guidelines. OSHA gives us rules, right? And that's a really important distinction.
KEITH: Yeah. And a lot of employers have been looking for a signal. This is a signal, though he says even before the announcement, he had been hearing from an increasing number of companies looking to put vaccine requirements in place. This is likely to accelerate that. I will say, though, there are still a lot of questions about exactly how this will roll out and how long it will take to ramp up.
DETROW: So, Selena, the Biden administration is also expanding requirements for certain health care workers. How does that work?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So the White House is set to require that any health facility that receives funding for Medicare or Medicaid mandate vaccination for staff. And if that sounds familiar, it's because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently announced a rule for nursing home staff. Although that rule hasn't come out yet, that seems to be an extension of that. So it would apply to pretty much every hospital in the country. The White House estimates it would affect 17 million health care workers. Medicare and Medicaid funding is a huge part of many hospitals' budgets, so this is a big lever that the federal government has.
I talked to Dave Dillon today. He is a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, and he said this requirement might kind of even things out. Some hospitals are already doing this in areas that are more accepting of vaccinations. This might get the others on board. And he said that vaccine requirements for health care workers was really nothing new.
DAVE DILLON: Individuals that work at hospitals - at many hospitals are required to get an influenza vaccination, a potential hepatitis vaccination because these are the kind of things that you do to protect vulnerable patients at the frontlines of care.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I should mention that there was one vaccine requirement that was notably absent from this plan, and that is a requirement for air travelers. This is something that other countries have announced. This plan just reiterates a mask requirement and that they will double fines, although some reports suggest those fines are barely ever enforced anyway.
DETROW: What about testing? I mean, one big difference from last year is that rapid tests are being sold in stores, but they're still really hard to find.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that's true. There aren't really nearly enough tests, and they're not nearly cheap enough to enable people to rapidly get tested quickly and easily on a routine basis. And test positivity is also really high again, which indicates the country isn't nearly doing enough testing. So on this front, the administration plans to stockpile 2 billion rapid tests and make them available in prisons and homeless shelters and other congregate facilities and also send millions more to food banks and community health centers.
And they're planning to announce that Walmart, Amazon and Kroger will be selling these rapid tests at cost for the next three months, so they'll be discounted by up to 35% by the end of this week. Although that still really isn't enough for people to really test themselves frequently, it would be, like, maybe $17 for two tests. And it doesn't address the issue of how hard it can be to find a rapid test in a lot of places. Some testing manufacturers scaled down in the spring, when it looked like the pandemic was winding down. It'll take time for them to ramp up again.
DETROW: Yeah. And, Tam, let's shift to the politics just for a moment. There has been a lot of buildup to the speech by the White House. What are the politics around this moment and the speech in particular?
KEITH: Yeah. President Biden, as we all know, was elected in part on a promise to get the pandemic under control. He got a lot of praise early on for the fast rollout of vaccines two months ago. As you alluded to before, the president was celebrating what looked like the nation's independence from COVID. New cases were way down. People were getting back to normal life. And that is right around the time vaccination efforts hit a wall and the delta variant surged. Most Americans do still approve of his handling overall of the pandemic. But in the month of August, the NPR News/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found approval for Biden's handling of the pandemic fell nine points. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted at today's briefing that this, though, is not about politics. This will not be a political speech from the president.
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JEN PSAKI: What we can acknowledge and you've seen in a lot of these polls is that the No. 1 issue, No. 2 issue, No. 3 issue for many Americans is COVID and what we're doing.
KEITH: A slim majority of Americans actually approve of employer mandates. They also approve of masks in schools and in crowded indoor spaces. But the people most unlikely to be vaccinated - the most people - the people most likely to be unvaccinated are least likely to want to do anything that President Biden or his administration is telling them to do.
DETROW: Yeah, yeah. That's NPR's Tamara Keith as well as Selena Simmons-Duffin.
Thanks to both of you.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.