President Joe Biden announced Thursday that all federal employees and contractors must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing and abide by other safety restrictions, reflecting the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus that threatens to prolong the pandemic.
“Masking is one defense against the spread of COVID-19, but make no mistake: Vaccines are the best defense against you getting severely ill from COVID-19,” Biden said at a press conference announcing the policy.
The president said earlier this week that a vaccine mandate for government workers was under consideration following months of messaging from the nation’s leading public health officials that vaccines are the key to ending a pandemic that has upended life for more than a year and a half.
“Breakthrough cases remain rare, and almost all are mild cases,” Biden said of vaccinated people who contract the virus. “In fact, virtually all hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated.”
Unvaccinated federal employees will have to comply with several safety rules if they want to return to work.
“Anyone who does not attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location, physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement, and be subject to restrictions on official travel,” the White House said in a statement.
The federal rules echo those imposed in California and New York City, but on a massive scale: There are more than 4 million federal employees and about 6 million contractors or grant workers who are subject to the guidelines.
The U.S. mandate comes amid a surge in cases linked to the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19. Stalled vaccination rates in many parts of the country have allowed an uptick in every state, prompting the return of mask mandates in some areas and warnings that the pandemic remains a dire issue for the unvaccinated.
Biden addressed some of the reasons people have given for avoiding the vaccines, including a belief prevalent among conservatives that they haven’t been properly tested for safety. He emphasized that the available vaccines are built on decades of research that started long before the pandemic hit last year, and that the vaccine rollout started under a Republican president and continued under a Democratic one.
“There’s nothing political about it,” Biden said.
The president also announced several other efforts to increase vaccination rates, including calling on state and local governments to offer residents $100 to get vaccinated against the coronavirus ― something that studies show could incentivize people.
“According to research from the University of California, Los Angeles, roughly one-third of unvaccinated individuals said a cash payment would make them more likely to get a shot,” the White House noted.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask guidance this week, recommending all people in certain parts of the country ― even those who have been fully vaccinated ― wear masks indoors in some public spaces. Staff at the White House have been instructed to wear masks inside again, and lawmakers in the House have also been asked to resume wearing them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said this week that coronavirus vaccines would be mandatory for the more than 100,000 front-line health care workers at the federal agency, the first to do so.
All of the vaccines approved for use in the U.S. are effective against the delta strain. Though stories of breakthrough infections in vaccinated people are becoming more common, vaccines largely prevent severe illness and death associated with COVID-19.
The director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, has said in recent weeks the delta variant is among the most transmissible viruses known to science. The strain now makes up about 83% of new cases. Walensky said earlier this month about 97% of people hospitalized with the coronavirus have not been vaccinated.
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