With the highly transmissible delta variant driving a surge in coronavirus cases, President Biden on Thursday sought to boost a flagging vaccination campaign by announcing new efforts, including rules for federal employees and contractors.
"Vaccines are the best defense against you getting severely ill from COVID-19 — the very best defense," Biden said in remarks from the White House.
The president has been trying to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines and pleading with Americans to get inoculated, but he has limited ability to force action.
Except when it comes to the federal workforce. Here, Biden has the ability to go beyond urging.
Under new rules laid out Thursday, federal employees and contractors — a group that the White House said includes more than 4 million Americans — will need to confirm they are vaccinated or be tested once or twice a week for the virus. Those who cannot attest to being vaccinated will also have to wear masks while on the job.
The federal government is the largest employer in the nation, and the move could spur private companies to take similar steps. Some already have. The administration plans to urge businesses to follow the federal government's model.
Biden is also directing the Defense Department to look into how and when to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for the military.
Responding to a reporter inquiry after his remarks, Biden added it's "still a question" whether the federal government could mandate vaccines for the whole country.
The White House is also aiming to incentivize inoculation by encouraging state and local governments to offer $100 to people who get fully vaccinated. Biden said state and local governments could use funds from the American Rescue Plan for payments, and that the Kroger grocery store chain saw vaccination rates jump when it offered $100.
"I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who've gotten vaccinated already," Biden said, "but here's the deal: If incentives help us beat this virus, I think we should use them. We all benefit when we get more people vaccinated."
The president said the federal government will also reimburse small and medium-size businesses to give their employees paid time off to get themselves and their family members vaccinated.
"We're still hearing that people are unable to get time off from their employer to get vaccinated. This is unacceptable," he said. "Employers, this costs you nothing. If you haven't given employees paid time off, do it now, please."
"This is an American tragedy"
In his remarks, Biden spoke about the delta variant and emphasized that the vast majority of new hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.
"Last month, the studies showed that over 99% of COVID-19 deaths had been among the unvaccinated," he said.
"This is an American tragedy," he added. "If you're out there unvaccinated, you don't have to die."
Biden acknowledged the difficulty his administration faced in trying to assure Americans of the vaccines' safety and efficacy, and in tamping down misinformation. He said politics shouldn't play a role in people's decisions. Surveys have shown that Republicans are far less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats.
"The vaccine was developed and authorized under a Republican administration. And it has been distributed and administered under a Democratic administration," he said. "The vaccines are safe and highly effective. There's nothing political about them."
He said the same of masks: "A mask is not a political statement. It's about protecting yourself and protecting others."
He notably praised Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, both Republicans, for encouraging their constituents to get the vaccine.
Changing mask guidance
The remarks and the steps from Biden come two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask guidance for Americans, urging even people who are vaccinated to wear masks indoors in places with high virus transmission.
It's a big shift from the Fourth of July celebration Biden held to mark a measure of "independence" from the virus. At the time, he lauded fresh efforts to reopen the country.
Back in May, when the CDC abruptly lifted its universal mask mandate, Biden called it a "great day." His administration eagerly embraced the relaxed guidance with big indoor, maskless events.
The back and forth from the CDC amounts to whiplash and struck many as arbitrary.
"They got a good grade, probably an A in terms of biological science, when they came out with some of those recommendations, but they got an incomplete at best on behavioral science," said Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.
It's unclear how the CDC's actions could affect Biden politically, but the president has tied his own messaging to the agency and regularly stressed the idea of following "the science" rather than exerting political influence over big decisions.
Generally, Biden gets fairly high marks for his handling of the pandemic. The numbers of cases and deaths are way down, compared with when Biden took office in January. And the White House boasts of 80% of the nation's older people and 60% of American adults being fully vaccinated.
But more than 600,000 Americans have died from the virus, and much of the nation has grown tired of masks and more than a year of coronavirus restrictions.
And as next year's midterms close in, there's less room for error.
Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher notes that the current pandemic wave is driven by areas with low vaccination rates.
"If you could connect that back to Biden and his action or inaction, I think that's problematic. But I don't think you can," Belcher said. "I think it's hard to connect the dots around what's happening with the unvaccinated, particularly in the red states."
Still, it will be important for Biden to make sure schools open in the fall and the economy continues to improve. Democratic consultant Karen Finney, who has experience with crisis communications, said the White House has to keep being transparent about what's happening with the pandemic as conditions change, while not letting that overtake the rest of Biden's agenda.
"Keep moving on the things you can control. Keep moving on making sure that the campaign promises are met," Finney said.
As far as what the administration can control, the federal workforce certainly falls in that category.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There are some alarming new trends in this pandemic in the U.S. The contagious delta variant is now dominant. Cases have surged - all at a time when the pace of vaccinations has been stalling. Today, President Biden is giving an important address about how his administration plans to turn that all around, starting with new vaccine and testing requirements for federal workers. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now with more details. Hey, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
CHANG: Hi. So, OK, President Biden has been urging people for months to get vaccinated. The administration has made vaccines pretty easy to get. And still, there has been resistance. So what options does Biden have at this point?
KEITH: Yeah, as you say, for months now the message has been that people just need to tune out the misinformation and talk to their doctors or trusted people in their communities, but that is a slow process, and plenty of people don't even have regular doctors. And then they moved on to the incentives, like free beer and lotteries.
KEITH: And those all hit a limit, too. So now President Biden is moving from carrots into the realm of sticks, though the White House is quick to say that this isn't a mandate. He's going to announce that civilian federal employees and contractors will need to self-attest that they are vaccinated, and if they are not, they will need to wear masks at all times - no matter how much COVID is in their region - and get tested for COVID once or twice a week. They also won't be allowed to travel. All told, including contractors, this will apply to 4 million people who work for the federal government.
KEITH: It's not clear what share of this workforce is vaccinated already or how big a difference this will make. And even though they're not calling it a mandate, there will be a lot of political pushback to this new policy because it will make life difficult for people who have chosen not to get the vaccines.
CHANG: Right. And that's the idea.
CHANG: OK, so will this apply to the military?
KEITH: Well, we're told that the president will say that he is directing the Department of Defense to look at how and when to do this for people who serve. At some point, COVID-19 vaccines will be added to the list of mandatory vaccinations for members of the military, since they serve in places where disease is prevalent and vaccinations are scarce among the populations.
CHANG: Absolutely. So, Tam, how does this new policy fit into the White House's larger strategy as we approach the fall?
KEITH: Yeah, this is a time when many white-collar employers are planning a return to offices and schools are preparing to reopen, and the White House sees this as another inflection point in the pandemic. Some large employers have already announced similar vaccine mandates or verification requirements. And part of the administration's hope is that if the federal government does this, other businesses will jump on board as well. There are some other new measures the president is announcing. He will call on state and local governments to offer $100 to people who get the shot. And - yep, another carrot.
KEITH: And the government will also try to prioritize vaccines for kids ages 12 and up before school starts by encouraging pop-up clinics at schools. Fewer than 40% of adolescents 12 to 15 have gotten their first dose, even though the vaccines have been available to them for some time. And having as many people as - vaccinated as possible as school starts is going to be important to avoiding outbreaks that shut classrooms down.
CHANG: OK, so all kinds of carrots and sticks right now.
CHANG: How important would you say it is, politically speaking, for the president to get this message right today?
KEITH: This is a critical moment. There has been a lot of confusion lately about the shifting guidance, especially on masks. People are exhausted from the pandemic, and a surge of cases is dispiriting. Just when life and business was starting to come back, this surge in cases and the new mask guidance from the CDC feels like a backslide, as former Obama adviser David Axelrod told me. You know, it's not clear whether this will be a political problem for President Biden, but the midterms are closer than they seem.
CHANG: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.