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Biden announces vaccine mandate for federal employees

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 driving a new surge in infections in the United States, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a new rule for federal employees: Get vaccinated or face regular testing and other restrictions.

There are roughly 4 million federal employees in the U.S., according to the Office of Personnel Management. That makes the federal government the nation’s largest employer and getting this swath of Americans on board with inoculations could help take a bite out of the virus’ spread.

In remarks from the East Room of the White House on Thursday, Biden urged federal workers to get the shot.

“From the moment I was elected, I said I would give it to you always straight from the shoulder and we need straight talk right now because there’s a lot of fear and misinformation in our country. We need to cut through it with facts and science and the truth," he said.

New cases of COVID-19 were declining for months, but the U.S. is currently seeing a spike in cases because of the highly contagious Delta variant.

“It’s highly transmissible and causing a new wave of cases among those who are not vaccinated. Experts tell me cases will go up further before they come back down, but while cases are on the rise we’re not likely to see a comparable rise in hospitalizations or deaths in most areas of the country. Why is that? Because 164 million Americans are fully vaccinated, including 80% of the most vulnerable, our seniors,” Biden said.

Some 325 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the last six months in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Tuesday issued new guidance saying even fully vaccinated Americans should wear face masks indoors in public if they live in a virus hotspot. The guidance applies to areas with a substantial increase in cases, defined by the CDC as 50 new cases for every 100,000 people per week.

While the news may be disheartening, the U.S. does have enough doses of vaccine in its national supply to inoculate those who haven't gotten the shot.

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As for booster shots, they are currently unnecessary, according to the CDC, because they have yet to show a significant impact or effect in people under 65 with normal immune systems who are already vaccinated against COVID-19. That may be different for those over that age.

Amanda Cohn, chief medical officer for the CDC’s immunization division, told members of the agency’s vaccine advisory panel this week that public health officials are exploring whether a booster would benefit the immunocompromised over 65.

A decision has not yet been issued by public health agencies, though Pfizer has said efficacy from its vaccine drops slightly as time passes. That is to be expected in vaccines for most diseases.

“If you will need a booster shot, as of now, my medical advisers say the answer is no. No American needs a booster now but if the science tells us there is a need for boosters, then that is something we’ll do,” Biden said Thursday, emphasizing the U.S. pandemic response will go where the science takes it.

The White House has faced a raft of criticism about recent CDC policy change regarding masks. In Congress, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, has been particularly vocal, holding press conferences, posting tweets and delivering remarks on the House floor railing against the changes.

“It punishes Americans who’ve already done everything they were asked to do​.​ They’re told​ if you’re vaccinated​,​ you wouldn’t have to wear a mask,” McCarthy said at a press conference Thursday morning with a slew of Republican members flanking him on the Capitol steps.

The CDC said in May that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear a mask indoors because virus rates were finally starting to plummet in the U.S. thanks to vaccinations. Now, because of the rise in cases driven by the Delta variant, the agency has again recommended people wear a mask in public and indoors, like in the workplace or a grocery store.

“That’s true for the vaccinated and unvaccinated because even if you have been fully vaccinated or protected from severe illness of COVID-19, you could have Delta variant in your system and spread it to someone who isn’t vaccinated,” Biden said.

Under the new protocols, federal employees will now be required to attest to their vaccination status and if they choose not to get the shot, they will be required to wear a mask. The Department of Justice has determined that it is legal for employers to require vaccinations. It is also not a violation of HIPAA privacy rules when an employer asks an employee to provide proof of vaccination, according to the HIPAA journal.

Federal workers will also be required to physically distance from other employees and visitors to a job site. Unvaccinated federal workers will be required to comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening for COVID-19 and they can also be subject to restrictions on official travel. Federal contractors are included in the new mandate.  

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The decision comes after the Department of Veterans Affairs began the first federal agency to enforce vaccination requirements for its staff. Biden said the Department of Defense will begin reviewing how and when it will add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of obligatory vaccinations for members of the U.S. military.  

To incentivize Americans who have yet to get the jab, the Biden administration also called on state and local governments to dole out $100 to people who receive their vaccination for the first time. A White House fact sheet circulated Thursday noted that the $100 incentive was highly successful for the grocery store chain Kroger. Vaccination rates for Kroger workers increased by 25% when management offered cash for shots. To pay for these incentives, states, tribes and local governments can draw off of pandemic relief funding already distributed this year.

The president also urged American schoolchildren to return to class this fall in person. With the CDC reporting that 90% of school staff have been vaccinated, Biden said it would be “better for our children’s mental and emotional wellbeing” to send them back.

“Every school should be open and we’re giving them the tools to do it safely even in areas with a higher rate of COVID-19,” he said Thursday.

The CDC has encouraged a return to in-person learning. To prevent the spread of the virus, the directions for children are simple: wear a mask.

Vaccinations among children 12 to 17 years old have ticked upward of late. The White House on Thursday urged school districts nationwide to host at least one more pop-up vaccination clinic in their respective communities for children 12 and up. A federal pharmacy vaccine incentive program already in place will continue to support this campaign.

“A mask is not a political statement,” Biden said. “It’s about protecting yourself and protecting others. Masking is one defense against the spread of COVID-19 but make no mistake, vaccines are the very best defense against you getting COVID-19. The very best defense. How do we put this virus behind us? We need to get more people vaccinated.”

As for breakthrough cases, the president acknowledged that some fully vaccinated people have tested positive or have shown symptoms of the disease. But those cases are still exceedingly rare, according to the CDC. Of the more than 160 million people who are fully vaccinated, the CDC has received reports of only 5,914 people being hospitalized because of COVID-19 or dying from it.

“You don’t have to die,” Biden urged, reflecting on reports of Americans on their death beds asking their doctor if they can get the shot.

“The doctors have to say, sorry, it’s too late. Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and they’re saying, ‘if I just got vaccinated.’ It’s heartbreaking. It's complicated even more by the fact that it's preventable,” he said.

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President Joe Biden emphasized Thursday the U.S. pandemic response will go where the science takes it.