Instead of merely asking Americans to get vaccinated, the President on Thursday is set to take his first step toward requiring it. In afternoon remarks, Biden is planning to announce that all federal employees must attest to being vaccinated against Covid-19 or face strict protocols including regular testing, masking and other mitigation measures, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
The directive, which has been under review by the administration for several days, will be delivered in sterner terms than Biden has used previously, one official said. It marks a sharp strategic shift for the White House as it urgently moves to address the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
As vaccination rates have fallen across the country, Biden has become increasingly frustrated and feels as if the nation has hit “a brick wall” when it comes to getting shots in arms, according to people familiar with his thinking. During Biden’s speech Thursday, one official said he also plans to directly address the millions who have procrastinated or outright refused to get vaccinated.
In private meetings with top aides, Biden has raised one question repeatedly: “What’s the problem?”
At earlier stages in the pandemic, Biden resisted steps that would require people to provide proof of vaccination. The White House flatly rejected the notion of “vaccine passports” in April. Attendees at a major July Fourth party were not expected to show their US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine cards. And as recently as Friday, the White House said it was the role of private-sector entities and local communities to mandate vaccines, not the federal government.
Biden’s aides still say they do not believe he has the power to require all Americans to get shots. But his oversight of the federal workforce, they believe, can be a powerful model to other employers considering their options on mandating vaccines. One of the principal motivators behind Biden’s vaccine requirement for federal workers is providing a model for private companies and local governments considering similar rules for their own employees, according to administration officials.
Officials wanted to announce the requirement before agencies and private businesses return their workforces to offices in the fall to give them time to implement the changes and to allow workers time to get fully vaccinated.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said Wednesday on CNN that health passes for the fully vaccinated, such as those used in parts of Europe, “may very well be a path forward.”
But she acknowledged there was little the federal government could do to require vaccines in the broader population.
“We can provide this advice, but we can’t mandate it at the federal level,” she said. “Those are all jurisdictional discussions and jurisdictional mandates. We are hoping that our advice will lead to more and more jurisdictions leaning in to get more people vaccinated.”
A far different mindset emerges
With the Delta variant rising and new mask guidelines suddenly in place, the White House is in a far different mindset than officials had hoped at the beginning of July. For weeks, great pains were taken not to even utter the word “mandate” inside the West Wing, for fear of alienating Americans or injecting even more raw politics into the pandemic.
Word of a bipartisan deal on part of the President’s infrastructure plan Wednesday was one of the few bright lights in the West Wing, where the fight against Covid has become “stubbornly frustrating,” in the words of a top Biden adviser.
“We were winning the fight against Covid, but no one ever said it was over,” the top Biden adviser said, adding that blame should be placed on the unvaccinated, not those who were following the rules. “Now that’s more clear than ever. It’s not over.”
New indoor mask guidelines for vaccinated Americans that the CDC unveiled this week have only exacerbated the sense that inoculated people are still being asked to sacrifice because a sizable portion of eligible adults won’t get shots.
Biden, who along with senior aides has been careful over the past several months to avoid directly criticizing vaccine holdouts, did not hold back ahead of the CDC’s announcement.
“We have a pandemic because of the unvaccinated, and they’re sowing enormous confusion. And the more we learn about this virus and the Delta variation, the more we have to be worried and concerned,” he said on Tuesday.
It was a striking departure for Biden, who until now has mostly refrained from directly blaming the unvaccinated for extending the pandemic. Last week, his press secretary said it was not the White House’s goal to “place blame” for the surge. Earlier this month, Vice President Kamala Harris told a crowd in Detroit that it was important to convey empathy for those still unsure about vaccines.
“Let’s do this in a way that we don’t judge anybody,” she said. “We’re not looking down on anybody.”