WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will seek to ramp up pressure on the unvaccinated on Thursday by announcing additional federal vaccine mandates, calling for the private sector to do the same, and pushing for increased testing in schools as the season he billed as a “summer of freedom” ends with thousands of unvaccinated Americans dying from Covid-19 every week.
Biden is expected to announce that all federal executive branch workers will face a vaccine requirement, and plans to say that that standard should be extended to employees of contractors that do business with the federal government, according to a person familiar with the plans. The Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and the National Institutes of Health have already said they will require vaccinations for their 2.5 million employees.
Biden had given federal workers the choice of undergoing regular testing instead of getting vaccinated, but that testing opt-out will no longer be an option.
White House officials said Biden is also expected to continue encouraging employers and local governments to put vaccine mandates in place along with mask requirements and discuss efforts to get boosters to those who are vaccinated, an effort the administration plans to start Sept. 20.
“He’s going to build on our mandates requirements, making it so that workers in the federal government or others have to get vaccinated, we’ve seen that work,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday on MSNBC.
“We can’t declare with a magic wand from the federal government that every person has to be vaccinated. School districts can do that, leaders and states can push their school districts to do that. That’s important, companies can do that and make those requirements for their employees,” she said. “That’s something some larger companies have done, and that’s a model. So those are all pieces the president will talk about today.”
An administration official said the president will also call on all schools to set up regular testing. The federal government set aside $10 billion in funding for Covid screening tests for teachers, staff and students, but it is unclear how that money is being spent.
The CDC recommends testing be offered to students who have not been fully vaccinated when there is elevated spread of the virus, and teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated should be screened regardless of the level of community transmission.
After focusing heavily on promoting vaccinations throughout the summer, the new strategy will look beyond that strategy as a means to bringing the pandemic under control, said people familiar with the plans. Some of the efforts Biden is expected to detail include increasing access to testing, methods for keeping students too young to get vaccinated safe in schools, and improved access to treatments for those who are ill, a White House official said.
Biden’s Covid reset comes as the rapidly spreading delta variant threatens to stall the country’s economic rebound and derail efforts to return students to the classroom. Just weeks into the return to school tens of thousands of students and staff have had to isolate themselves following school outbreaks, and the administration attributed August’s disappointing jobs numbers to the variant as consumer confidence falls.
Much of Biden’s wider agenda and political standing is dependent on his ability to address the pandemic.
Biden’s approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak has steadily decreased over the summer from 63 percent at the end of June to 53 percent this week, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. He’s also seen a drop in with wider approval rating, which slid 6 points since July to just 43 percent, in a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released last week.
Entering the summer, Biden promoted his success at getting Covid cases to the lowest level since the start of the pandemic and predicted 70 percent of adults would be vaccinated by Independence Day. White House officials said they hoped Biden’s pandemic response would restore Americans’ faith in government and make it easier to sell other aspects of his domestic agenda, like an ambitious infrastructure spending package.
“America is headed into the summer dramatically different from last year’s summer: a summer of freedom, a summer of joy, a summer of get-togethers and celebrations,” Biden predicted on June 2. “An all-American summer that this country deserves after a long, long, dark winter that we’ve all endured.”
The summer was indeed different, but not in the way Biden had anticipated. States such as Florida set records for the number of patients hospitalized with Covid, as new cases across the country went well above the numbers seen last summer due to the spread of the delta variant.
But at the same time, Americans followed through on Biden’s prediction of a return to celebrations and gatherings, something that now has public health officials fearing a new wave of infections following Labor Day weekend travel and get-togethers.
Across the country, states are seeing hospitals overwhelmed with Covid patients. In Idaho, which has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, officials said Tuesday they were allowing health care providers to begin rationing care to make scarce resources available to patients most likely to survive because of a severe shortage of staff, beds and equipment.
Biden has seen some improvement in the pace of vaccinations, which started increasing again in recent weeks after leveling off in July. The U.S. passed the milestone this week of having 75 percent of adults at least practically vaccinated. The biggest gains have been in young adults and teens, which White House officials have attributed to vaccine mandates by colleges and employers along with increased fears from the delta variant.
The U.S. has started to see a downturn in the number of new cases and deaths over the past week. But public health officials have warned that could be a short-lived break, following Labor Day weekend gatherings and millions of kids going back to school this week.
At least 1,000 schools have already closed because of outbreaks. In Mississippi, officials last month said more than 20,000 students were in quarantine from exposure to the coronavirus after the first week of school, forcing at least 29 schools to switch back to virtual learning.
Schools in Texas and Florida, where schools are banned by the state from requiring masks, have reported staff members dying since the start of classes.
Health officials are also warning of a winter surge that could coincide with particularly severe flu seasons with kids back in school, people congregating more than last winter, and mask requirements gone in most of the country.
This content was originally published here.