Biden targets the unvaccinated with widespread plan to mandate COVID-19 shots
'Our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,' Biden tells those still resisting vaccine
U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday took aim at vaccine resistance in the U.S., announcing policies requiring most federal employees and more than 17 million health-care workers to get COVID-19 vaccines and plans to require mandatory vaccination or weekly testing for private businesses with 100 employees or more.
Once fully in force, the new measures, which Biden laid out in remarks from the White House, would cover about two-thirds of all U.S. employees, part of a broader, more aggressive attempt to get Americans vaccinated amid a surge in COVID-19 cases from the fast-spreading delta variant.
"We've been patient," Biden told the millions of Americans who have declined to get coronavirus shots. "But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us."
Under Biden's plan, the administration would require vaccinations not just for federal workers and contractors but also the more than 17 million health-care workers at hospitals and other institutions that participate in Medicare and Medicaid social programs for poor, disabled and older Americans, senior administration officials said.
Taken together, the policies would cover about 100 million workers and represent Biden's most aggressive steps yet to prod Americans resistant to getting shots amid a surge in COVID-19 cases from the fast-spreading delta variant.
"We're in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while," Biden said.
Legal challenges expected
The plan is likely to face legal challenges, and was immediately disparaged by Biden's Republican opposition. It could be months before the impact of the mandates is felt.
Many in the United States remain skeptical of the shots two months after Biden declared that Americans are "closer than ever to declaring our independence" from the coronavirus.
Just over 53 per cent of all Americans are fully vaccinated, including almost two-thirds of the adult population, according to CDC data. The disease has killed more than 654,000 Americans.
Fines for non-compliance
Federal workers unions suggested they would accept the vaccine mandate. Federal workers have 75 days to get vaccinated or face termination unless they fall into limited exemption categories.
The U.S. Labour Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will issue its rule for private companies to require vaccines or tests in coming weeks.
OSHA plans to take enforcement actions against those that did not comply, with substantial fines of nearly $14,000 US per violation.
The medical work requirement will be implemented through a health agency rule that it plans to issue in October.
The administration also plans to ramp up testing capacity for the virus and urged employers to have their workers vaccinated or tested weekly.
Biden will use his authority under the Defence Production Act to spur industry to accelerate production of the tests, and big retailers including Walmart, Amazon.com and Kroger will sell the tests at cost for the next three months to make them more affordable, the officials said.
U.S. 'still in pandemic mode'
With 160,000 new infections a day, the country is "still in pandemic mode … That's not even modestly good control," Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Axios. "You've got to get well below 10,000 before you start feeling comfortable."
The White House plans to offer booster shots providing additional protection to those who are fully vaccinated, a rejection of arguments from the World Health Organization and other advocates that with global vaccine supplies limited, rich countries should pause booster shots until more people worldwide are inoculated.
Abbott Laboratories and other test manufacturers are trying to boost production as cases soar, after having scaled back in recent months. CVS Health Corp recently imposed limits on the number of at-home tests customers can buy.
The federal government cannot mandate vaccines nationwide, but it has encouraged school districts, businesses and other entities to require shots. Biden's plan also calls on large entertainment venues to require vaccination or testing for entry.
Many school districts have mandated masks, despite heated controversy in some areas, and some have required teachers to be vaccinated or face regular testing.
With a file from The Associated Press