US President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that all civilian federal workers will need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or face regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and travel limits.
The requirements are not considered a mandate because those who decide against getting a vaccine will not be at risk of being fired, according to the White House.
“Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status, anyone who does not attest or is not vaccinated will be required to mask no matter where they work, test one or two times a week to see if they have acquired COVID, socially distance and generally will not be allowed to travel for work,” Biden said during remarks from the White House.
He said similar standards will be applied to federal contractors.
Additionally, Biden directed the Department of Defense to consider how and when it will begin requiring servicemembers to get vaccinated.
The Biden administration also called for state, local and US territorial governments to provide $100 payments for every newly vaccinated American, funded by the $350bn in aid granted under the American Rescue Plan Act, the US Treasury Department said on Thursday.
The new policies are a recognition by the Biden administration that the government must do more to boost sluggish vaccination rates, as coronavirus cases and hospitalisations rebound, driven largely by the spread of the more infectious Delta variant. The federal government is racing to contain the pandemic in the hope of avoiding nationwide shutdowns.
Biden and elected officials from both political parties have placed the blame for the resurgence of the virus squarely on the shoulders of those who are not vaccinated.
“It’s about protecting yourself and others,” Biden said. “Vaccines are the best defence against you getting severely ill from COVID-19, the very best defence.”
About 60 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated. Biden missed his goal of having 70 percent of adults get at least one shot by July 4. The latest figure is 69.3 percent.
According to 2020 data, the US government is the nation’s largest employer with about 2.18 million civilian federal employees and another 570,000 people who work for the US Postal Service, which is considered an independent quasi-governmental agency. Biden wants to apply the vaccine requirement to contractors who work for the federal government and will encourage the private sector to follow the same model.
The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) said it opposed a vaccine mandate for federal employees and expressed concern about Biden’s requirement.
“While the APWU leadership continues to encourage postal workers to voluntarily get vaccinated, it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent,” the group said in a statement.
However, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which has 90,000 members including some 30,000 NASA engineers and other skilled federal workers, said it supports a vaccine mandate for federal workers.
“We don’t want any more of our members dying,” the union’s President Paul Shearon said in a statement.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday mandated that its doctors and other medical staff get COVID-19 vaccines, becoming the first federal agency to impose such a requirement.
In addition, some states, including California and New York, as well as cities such as New York City have announced similar requirements for their government workers.
Some private employers, including tech giants Google and Facebook, are mandating jabs for all employees working in their offices.
Also this week, mask mandates are being implemented again at numerous US buildings and agencies.
On Wednesday, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) began mandating masks at federal buildings in COVID-19 hot spots, according to an OMB email seen by the Reuters news agency.
The Defense Department said late Wednesday that the masking requirements would apply to the Pentagon.
The White House also said masks are required indoors in federal buildings for all employees and visitors, whether or not they are vaccinated, in those areas experiencing sharp increases in infections. Soon thereafter, the attending physician for the US Congress required the use of masks on the House side of the Capitol but not the Senate.
On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said nearly 67 percent of US counties were at substantial or high transmission rates, up from 63.4 percent on Tuesday.
Americans’ views on jabs
Public opinion seems to have hardened around the vaccines, with a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finding that among American adults who have not yet received a vaccine, 35 percent say they probably will not, and 45 percent say they definitely will not.
While the administration hopes the new guidance will boost vaccination rates, having Biden wade squarely into the middle of the continuing political debate surrounding vaccines could backfire if it further fuels Republican criticism and distrust of the vaccine among the president’s detractors.
The AP-NORC poll found that views on vaccinations divide sharply along party lines, with Republicans far more likely than Democrats to say they have not been vaccinated and definitely or probably will not be, 43 percent to 10 percent.
Indeed, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke out about the new mask requirements in Congress, which affects only the House side of the Capitol.
“They can take the nation’s Capitol, and in one building, tell you the science is different on one side to the other,” McCarthy told reporters Thursday. “They could do the same throughout the nation and they will. The Republican Congress will not allow this to happen.”