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Biden rolls out aggressive plan to jump-start vaccination

POLITICO logo POLITICO 7/30/2021 By Lauren Gardner

President Joe Biden issued a directive Thursday that will require about 2 million federal employees to disclose whether they've been vaccinated against Covid-19, or else submit to regular testing, as the highly transmissible Delta variant drives up new infections nationwide.

Federal workers and on-site contractors will have to attest to their vaccination status, the White House said. Those who don't must wear masks at work regardless of their geographic location and get tested once or twice a week for Covid-19. Employees who don't disclose being fully vaccinated also will be subject to work travel restrictions and must physically distance from colleagues and visitors, the administration said.

"If people are vaccinated, the transmission rate drops through the floor," Biden said.

The president is directing the administration to extend similar standards to all federal contractors, noting that a return to "normal" can be expedited by employers pushing immunization of employees.

“Fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen more quickly and more successfully," Biden said during a speech from the East Room of the White House. "We all know that in our gut.”

"The Administration will encourage employers across the private sector to follow this strong model," the White House said in a fact sheet about the announcement.

Biden is also directing the Pentagon to determine how and when it might add Covid vaccination to the list of mandated immunizations for the military. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will begin meeting with the department’s medical professionals, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to prepare recommendations for the president, Jamal Brown, deputy Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement Thursday night.

“In accordance with the guidance the President issued today, all military and civilian DoD personnel will be asked to attest to their vaccination status,” Brown said. “Personnel unable or unwilling to do that will be required to wear a mask, physically distance, comply with a regular testing requirement and be subject to official travel restrictions.”

The hotly anticipated order could give federal agencies discretion to require proof of vaccination among workers, especially those who work in health care settings or who regularly interact with Americans in person. It marks one of the White House's most aggressive actions to date to encourage uptake of Covid-19 shots. But the directive's language stops short of such a mandate, rendering the policy an honor system whereby bosses may have to take their employees at their word, depending on where they work.

Those who are unvaccinated will have to submit to "weekly or twice weekly" testing, though it isn't immediately clear if screenings would be provided in federal workplaces or if employees would have to get tested elsewhere and vouch for it.

The leader of the largest union representing federal workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, said he expects any Covid-related changes to working conditions to be negotiated with members before they're implemented.

"Based on today’s announcement, it is our understanding that under President Biden’s proposal the vast majority of federal employees would not have to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, but that those who choose not to receive the vaccine may face certain restrictions," said National President Everett Kelley, who also urged members to get vaccinated if they can.

Biden also called on state, territorial and local governments to use coronavirus relief funding to offer $100 to anyone who gets a shot. Polling and anecdotal evidence shows cash incentives have motivated some unvaccinated Americans to roll up their sleeves.

The President announced that small- and medium-sized businesses will now be reimbursed for offering their employees paid leave to get their family members, including their kids, vaccinated. In April, the President announced that, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, the federal government is fully reimbursing any small- or medium-sized business that provides workers with paid time off to get vaccinated.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, by the end of June, half of all workers in America had access to paid time off for vaccinations, and 75 percent of workers who were offered paid time off for vaccinations from their employer reported being vaccinated. The President will also call on employers who have not offered paid time off to their employees for vaccination to do so.

Biden's latest attempt at encouraging vaccination comes days after the CDC reversed course and recommended that Americans — regardless of Covid vaccination status — begin wearing masks again indoors if they live in communities with "substantial" or "high" infection rates. In May, the agency said vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear masks outdoors or indoors in most circumstances.

But senior White House and CDC officials met over the weekend to discuss new data that Director Rochelle Walensky said shows that vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections with the Delta variant have a similar viral load compared to those who aren't, meaning vaccinated people may transmit the virus to others.

CDC hasn't made the data public, stirring condemnation from conservatives — who have branded the new policy a "mandate" — and puzzlement from some public health experts.

“Vaccine mandates will not build trust in the vaccine, and neither will the CDC’s mask mandate based on secret, unpublished, and questionable data," said Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Republican. "All these actions only create a dangerous level of resentment toward a government that is acting like an authoritarian regime seizing more command and control in our lives and health care decisions. The most important thing we should be doing to boost vaccine confidence is encouraging people to talk to their doctors."

Biden during his remarks implored unvaccinated Americans to get their shots, pointing to prominent Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — and “even the commentators on Fox that have been belittling us for a long time" — who have recently promoted the shot to skeptical conservatives.

“I know people talk about freedom, but I learned growing up … with freedom comes responsibility," Biden said. "The decision to be unvaccinated impacts someone else.”

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