WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced new steps Thursday to boost vaccination rates, including encouraging states to use federal Covid funds to offer $100 to anyone who will get vaccinated and requiring federal employees to be vaccinated or face testing.
Speaking from the White House, Biden pleaded with unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated especially as the delta variant has led to a spike in cases and hospitalizations in regions of the country with low vaccination rates. "You don’t have to die," Biden warned.
The president said that federal employees will be asked to attest to their vaccination status, and those who do not attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask, socially distance from other employees and visitors, get tested up to twice a week for Covid and be subject to restrictions on official travel.
Biden urged other state and local governments and private employers to follow a similar vaccination requirement for their workplace, adding that the Justice Department has "made it clear" that it is legal to do so. He said it was still a question as to whether the federal government could issue a nationwide vaccine mandate.
"If in fact you are unvaccinated, you present a problem," Biden said.
The federal government employs roughly 4 million people around the country, including over 2 million in the federal civilian workforce. The total number of employees is closer to 10 million when contract workers and grant workers are included.
Biden said he also asked his administration to take steps to apply similar vaccination standards to all federal contractors and asked the Department of Defense to look into adding the Covid vaccine to the list of those required for members of the military.
The Defense Department announced Thursday evening that it would begin implementing the directive and that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would begin consulting with medical professionals and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on adding the Covid vaccine to those routinely required for military personnel.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy White House press secretary, said Thursday that the White House did not have an estimate as to how many federal employees were unvaccinated.
Biden said he was concerned that some people were still unable to leave work to get vaccinated and encouraged small- and medium-sized businesses to take advantage of federal programs that cover the cost of paid time off offered to employees to get vaccinated. Biden said he would also extend the program to cover paid leave to take family members to get vaccinated.
"I promise it will cost you — the employer — nothing," he said.
The president also encouraged school districts to hold pop-up vaccine clinics to help reach younger people ahead of the new school year.
The highly contagious delta variant has led to a spike in cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, leading health officials to re-evaluate their strategies to get people vaccinated. The biggest increase in Covid cases are in states that are lagging behind in vaccinations.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that all medical facility employees will be required to be vaccinated against Covid, becoming the first federal agency to issue a mandate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued new guidance Tuesday recommending indoor mask use in areas with high transmission rates after new data suggested fully vaccinated individuals are not just contracting Covid, but could also potentially infect others.
"I know its exhausting to think we're still in this fight and I know that we hoped this would be a simple, straight-forward line without problems or new challenges," Biden said. "But that isn't real life."