Biden to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for larger U.S. companies

President Joe Biden announced sweeping new coronavirus vaccine mandates Thursday designed to affect tens of millions of Americans, ordering all businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be immunized or face weekly testing.

Biden also said that he would require most health-care facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to vaccinate their employees, which the White House believes will cover 50,000 locations.

And the president signed an executive order compelling all federal employees to get vaccinated—without an option for those who prefer to be regularly tested instead—in an effort to create a model he hopes state governments will embrace. He is also ordering all staffers in Head Start programs, along with Defense Department and federally operated schools for Native Americans, to be vaccinated.

“We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” Biden said in an address from the White House. He added, “What makes it incredibly more frustrating is we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner.”

Taken together, the moves represent a major escalation by Biden of the pressure against those who have resisted vaccination. The announcement comes amid growing signs that the highly contagious delta variant, and the persistence of vaccine resistance, are combining to drag out the pandemic, slow the economic recovery and prevent Biden from turning his focus to other matters.

Biden adopted a newly antagonistic tone toward the unvaccinated Thursday, underlining his shift from cajoling to coercion as he placed blame on those still refusing to get shots for harming other Americans. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Biden said. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”

The delta variant has upended calculations on the virus, sending new infections surging to more than 150,000 a day and daily deaths to 1,500. At the same time, Biden’s approval rating has fallen in recent weeks, with Americans less supportive of his handling of the pandemic. Defeating the pandemic was among his central promises, and White House aides believe that his ability to deliver on it will be critical to the success of his presidency.

Biden’s announcement thrusts his administration into new territory, and it’s not entirely clear how the new rules—which still have to be written—will work. The most far-reaching is likely to be a regulation requiring all businesses with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccinations for all their workers or require them to take weekly coronavirus tests.

The White House estimates that the policy will affect about 80 million workers, or two-thirds of the country’s workforce. Businesses that ignore the mandate could face up to $14,000 per violation.

The Labor Department has the authority to order companies to take specific actions to protect their workers if the secretary determines they face a grave danger, said an official who briefed reporters before the president’s speech.

But critics such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signaled court challenges even before Biden had finished speaking. “I will pursue every legal option available to the state of Georgia to stop this blatantly unlawful overreach by the Biden administration,” Kemp tweeted.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, a Republican, said he and other AGs were prepared to fight the mandates.

“My team and I, along with other like-minded attorneys general, are reviewing all legal action on how to stand against these authoritarian actions by the Biden administration,” he said in a written statement. “We will be prepared to file suit if Biden seeks illegal actions restricting Hoosiers’ liberties.”

Businesses also will be required to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated.

Some business leaders offered initial support for Biden’s plan. Joshua Bolten, president of the Business Roundtable, said the group “welcomes the Biden administration’s fight against COVID,” adding that “America’s business leaders know how critical vaccination and testing are in defeating the pandemic.”

Many in the administration, and elsewhere, have been taken aback at the extent to which the coronavirus vaccines have become a heated cultural issue rather than solely a public health measure, with right-leaning media hosts, Republican governors and many rank-and-file conservatives casting Biden’s vaccine drive as a violation of their personal freedom.

The president voiced exasperation with that attitude Thursday. “These ‘pandemic politics,’ as I refer to it, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die,” Biden said. “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting a large majority of Americans who have done their part.”

How the new mandates will fare in such a polarized environment is unclear. Just half of Americans in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll supported the idea of businesses requiring employees to be vaccinated, and the split was highly partisan. Roughly 8 in 10 Democrats supported such mandates, while more than 6 in 10 Republicans opposed them.

About three-quarters of U.S. workers have received at least one vaccine dose. But in a possible sign of what is to come, roughly 7 in 10 of those who are not vaccinated said they would probably quit if their employer required them to get a shot.

Even so, administration officials predicted the new approach would make a big difference. “I’m very much in favor of making and encouraging mandates,” Anthony S. Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said in a brief interview after Biden’s speech. “This was not just superficial stuff. This is going to have a significant impact.”

Biden also called on states to enact vaccine mandates for school staffers, although he did not propose any penalty for states that do not heed his call. According to the White House, nine states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, already mandate that staffers be vaccinated.

The American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, applauded the effort. “We stand in complete support of this plan and of the administration’s effort to protect as many people as possible,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Biden said he was making funds available to local schools facing financial retribution for implementing coronavirus protections.

“Right now local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic, while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs,” Biden said, in a veiled reference to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who has sought to withhold funds from school administrators who issue mask mandates. “Talk about bullying in schools.”

The new vaccine requirement for federal workers will apply not just to roughly 2.1 million government employees but also to the millions of contractors that do business with the government. In August, the Defense Department announced it was making coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for military personnel.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking before Biden’s remarks Thursday, said federal workers will have roughly 75 days to get fully vaccinated. If employees do not comply, she said, they will undergo the standard disciplinary process for federal workers.

There will be exemptions from the mandate for people with disabilities or those who decline for religious reasons. “We would like to be a model to what we think other businesses and organizations should do around the country,” Psaki said.

The largest union representing federal workers quickly pushed back against the new policy, or at least the specifics of its implementation.

“Changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate,” said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions.”

Biden also said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to spur the manufacture of additional rapid coronavirus tests, adding that the administration had struck a deal with Kroger, Walmart and Amazon to sell those tests at cost. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Even with the new policies, Biden is not using all of the tools available to him, public health experts said. For instance, the new rules stop short of mandating vaccinations for anyone traveling between states on planes or trains, a step that Biden could take, said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law School.

Still, Gostin praised Biden’s approach, saying that the president has “done more than any other president has for a vaccination campaign and mandates in the history of America—so we have to give him credit for that.”

Another step that Biden has avoided is setting up a federal verification system for people to prove they are vaccinated. This has confounded many public health experts.

“These measures have the potential to have a big impact on where we are,” said Richard Besser, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But he added, “There’s nothing in there about how you verify vaccination. . . . If you’re moving towards mandates, having something that is truly secure and trusted could be very helpful.”

Until now, Biden had used mandates only in limited circumstances, hoping instead that state and local governments, along with private companies, would follow suit when the government instituted particular vaccine policies.

He has seen some limited success. The Los Angeles Unified School District board on Thursday voted to mandate vaccinations for those 12 and up to be able to attend school.

Several large businesses, including Walmart, McDonald’s and Delta Air Lines, issued vaccine mandates of their own shortly after Biden announced in late July that federal workers had to get immunized or be tested twice a week (Thursday’s announcement eliminated the testing option.)

At the same time, some Republicans governors, such as DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott, have loudly defied calls for mandates.

But as the delta variant has surged, the political landscape has appeared to shift—vaccinations started ticking back up after stagnating for several weeks, with many hesitant Americans driven by fear of the delta variant’s lethality or compelled to get shots because of workplace mandates.

The Food and Drug Administration also granted the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine full approval recently, moving beyond the initial emergency authorization and making it easier for the government and businesses to impose mandates. The agency is expected to grant full approval to vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson in the coming months.

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17 thoughts on “Biden to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for larger U.S. companies

  1. As this is “more than any other president has (done) for a vaccination campaign”, seems likely there will be a Temp Restraining Order from Courts while they sort out Labor Dept authority/application. By the time it has teeth (if ever – how a company verifies a ‘religious belief’ exception mentioned is beyond me), the delta wave would seem likely to be over.

    FWIW, my small business (<100 ee's) will likely continue what we are doing: not explicitly a condition of employment, but any employee that chooses not to provide proof of vaccination is req'd to mask entire shift. When implemented over the summer it pushed the people on the periphery of the vaccine-denier camp to vaccinate, while minimizing chance of spread from people who for legitimate reasons or not, are not vaccinating.

    IMHO, that's where DOL should have gone, was working conditions, not employers requiring/policing medical procedure.

    May have all this sorted out in time for the next pandemic…

  2. Biden and His VP and all the others including AOC all put doubts in everyone’s mind when the vaccine came out under Trump. But I want to sudden now is the best thing since sliced bread they created this monster!!!! me and my doctor will make our own decisions.

    1. JL ~
      And exactly how did President Biden and his vice president “put doubts in everyone’s mind” when the vaccines came out? He got his first shot on December 21, 2020 which was only 10 days after the FDA authorized the drug for emergency use. In fact, he received his shot before Trump. If anything, it has been Trump who has created opposition to getting vaccinated.

    2. You’re hallucinating, Brent, as usual. The vaccines wouldn’t even exist had it not been for the priority Trump assigned to their development. Another classic case of Democrat Stolen Valor, as the military calls it. You liberal Trump-haters are as sickening as you are delusional.

  3. As a physician dealing with this pandemic for the past 18 months, I can tell you that this is exactly the type of decisive action that is needed right now. Attempts to encourage vaccination have just not helped. There is precedent for governmental vaccine mandate from the earlier smallpox epidemics of the past century. Our health care workers are burned out and are getting frustrated at the unvaccinated filling our ICU’s. These vaccines have been definitively proven to be safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death. It is unfortunate that certain politicians have made adherence to basic public health measures a partisan issue. If the unvaccinated person was the only one affected by that decision then I might agree with the “personal choice” argument. However that is not the case. Those who chose not to be vaccinated put everyone else at risk.

  4. How is it that this president thinks my body should be my choice in what I do with it when it comes to abortion, but not a shot. And let me clarify, this is not a vaccine. Vaccines eradicate most diseases such as small pox, measles, mumps, polio…not everywhere but most of the time. This is a shot, like the flu, not going away anytime soon. So, again can anyone explain to me how I should be allowed to make choices about my body when it comes to pregnancy, but not illness? And keep in mind, most everyone getting really sick and dying made that choice and knew the consequences.

    1. Lora, “my choice in what I do with it when it comes to abortion” – This only involves you. The choice to not receive the vaccines endangers the life’s of other people. Freedom in this country comes with responsibility. If someone can’t handle it they can get tested week, after week, after week.

    2. …and personally pay out of pocket for the tests, since expecting everyone else to pay is “socialism”.

  5. Jaron, everyone who wants the vaccine has had the opportunity to get it. So for those who don’t, if they get sick and give it to others who also are unvaccinated, that was their choice and every choice has a consequence. Just my 2 cents. The people that are sick and unvaccinated, chose to be.

    1. Lora D.-

      Uh, children under 16 are not yet able to be vaccinated. They have – or made – no choice. Your position puts them at risk.

      As of September 2, over 5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. About 252,000 cases were added the past week, the largest number of child cases in a week since the pandemic began. After declining in early summer, child cases have increased exponentially, with over 750,000 cases added between August 5 and September 2.

      https://www.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/children-and-covid-19-state-level-data-report/

    2. …and how many hospitalizations and/deaths of children as of Sept 2nd?

      Further, please cite how many children have tested positive for other viral ailments and died.

    3. Brent – you can be vaccinated at 11 years, 8 months old.

      J C B, you work in healthcare, right? You should have access to all these numbers. Why don’t you just tell us.

      We have to rely on stats like these:

      ====

      Here are the number of kids admitted to #Indiana hospitals for #COVID19 over the last six months.

      Sept (first 8 days only!): 91
      August: 225
      July: 67
      June: 35
      May: 62
      April: 93

      https://twitter.com/MicahPollak/status/1436330920886345729

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