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Biden White House readies a vaccine mandate for federal workers

POLITICO logo POLITICO 7/28/2021 By Myah Ward, Natasha Korecki and Sarah Owermohle
Joe Biden wearing a suit and tie: “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were,” President Joe Biden said. © Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were,” President Joe Biden said.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that a Covid vaccine mandate for all federal employees is “under consideration right now.”

“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were,” Biden told reporters at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where he addressed the intelligence community in the afternoon.

Prior to Biden’s announcement, White House officials told labor groups they were prepping guidelines on vaccine requirements and strict Covid testing for federal workers and expected to announce them later this week, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

“They’re preparing for it,” said one of the sources.

The discussions, which took place between administration officials and leaders of both public sector and private sector unions, prompted behind-the-scenes pushback from labor leaders who raised concerns about compulsory vaccination and fear that they’d get backlash from their union members.

Several White House officials on Tuesday insisted no final decision had been made.

“While no decision has been finalized, attestation of vaccination, which means confirming vaccination status or abiding by stringent COVID-19 protocols like mandatory mask wearing — even in communities not with high or substantial spread — and regular testing, for federal employees is one option under strong consideration,” a source with direct knowledge of the matter said. “The White House is expected to share more details after completing policy review later this week.”

Serious discussions about vaccination requirements for federal employees have been underway since the weekend, when White House and agency officials talked about an agency-by-agency approach to compel vaccination.

The federal government is the nation’s largest employer and a blanket mandate could affect at least 4 million federal employees, a number that includes civilian workers and members of both the U.S. military and the U.S. Postal Service. It’s unclear whether such a requirement would apply to members of the military. The Pentagon has been heavily debating whether to require troops to get vaccinated, or to implement alternative measures such as requiring weekly Covid tests, according to a defense official familiar with the discussions. No final decisions have been made yet.

“There has been no change to our use of the vaccine as a voluntary measure of protection,” said John Kirby, chief Pentagon spokesperson. “We continue to urge everyone in the Department to get vaccinated.”


Video: Biden considering vaccine mandate for ALL federal employees (Daily Mail)

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While a measure requiring federal workers to get vaccinated or submit to more aggressive Covid testing would have to come from Biden himself, in practice it would likely be channeled through the Office of Personnel Management, an independent agency that manages civil servants, two people familiar said.

An alternative to a government-wide approach, officials said, would be requirements instituted on an agency-by-agency basis. Even within health agencies, officials would be less likely to require vaccines for people who do not interact with patients or other vulnerable populations, said one senior administration official.

However, Biden officials privately applauded the Department of Veteran Affairs’ decision on Monday to require vaccination among its health care workers like physicians, dentists, nurses, physician assistants and other frontline medical staff at its facilities across the country. The VA employees have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated.

Most Congressional Republicans have also held fire for now on the VA move, with some supporting it.

“VA already mandates vaccines for federal employees,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a doctor himself, said Tuesday before reports of broader federal requirements. “Health care facilities typically mandate flu immunization, and for those who don’t take it, certain restrictions... so if they add the coronavirus [vaccine] too, it will frankly be part of just what they normally do.”

“You don’t want people who are sick to be exposed to a health care worker who may have an infection which is vaccine-preventable.”

In addition to Biden's comments, on Monday, New York City announced municipal employees had to get vaccinated or face weekly Covid testing. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said all state employees and health care workers had to get the shots, or would also be subject to frequent testing.

Later Monday night, Justice Department lawyers said that federal law doesn’t stop private businesses or public agencies from mandating Covid vaccines, paving the way for more businesses to require the shots for U.S. workers as Delta fuels a summer surge. The opinion from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, dated July 6, comes roughly two months after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released guidance saying U.S. employers could require all employees physically entering an office space to get the vaccine.

Biden was also questioned Tuesday about whether the CDC’s latest mask guidance is confusing for Americans. He dodged with his common refrain that this is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“If those other 100 million people got vaccinated, we'd be in a very different world,” Biden said. “So get vaccinated.”

Tuesday’s updated guidance, in which the CDC recommended that all children wear masks in schools this fall, has already made way for yet another partisan pandemic battle. Former President Donald Trump released a statement Tuesday night, saying that “we won’t go back.”

“We won’t mask our children. Joe Biden and his Administration learned nothing from the last year,” Trump said. “Brave Americans learned how to safely and responsibly live and fight back. Don’t surrender to COVID. Don’t go back! Why do Democrats distrust the science? Don’t let this happen to our children or our Country.”

Lara Seligman, Chris Cadelago and Erin Banco contributed to this report.

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