Biden announces measures to incentivize Covid-19 vaccinations, including a requirement for federal employees

By Maegan Vazquez, CNN

    (CNN) -- President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a number of new steps his administration will take to try to get more Americans vaccinated and slow the spread of coronavirus, including requiring that all federal employees must attest to being vaccinated against Covid-19 or face strict protocols.

The new measures come amid a rise in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the US. The vast majority of those individuals with severe cases of Covid-19 are unvaccinated.

"This is an American tragedy. People are dying -- and will die -- who don't have to die. If you're out there unvaccinated, you don't have to die," Biden said during remarks at the White House. "Read the news. You'll see stories of unvaccinated patients in hospitals, as they're lying in bed dying from Covid-19, they're asking 'Doc, can I get the vaccine?' The doctors have to say, 'Sorry, it's too late.'"

Biden said every federal government employee and on-site contractor will be asked to attest to their vaccination status.

Employees who have not been 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 ahead of Biden's speech.

The President also announced that he is ordering the Department of Defense "to look into how and when they will add Covid-19 vaccination to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military," according to the White House.

The administration debuted other efforts on Thursday to incentivize vaccinations, including expanding paid leave for employees who take time off to get themselves and their family members vaccinated. Biden said employers would be reimbured. The Treasury Department said Biden will also be calling on states, territories, and local governments to do more to incentivize vaccination, including offering $100 to Americans getting vaccinated, paid for with American Rescue Plan funding.

Finally, the President called on school districts nationwide to host at least one pop-up vaccination clinic over the coming weeks in an effort to get more kids 12 and older vaccinated.

The federal employee vaccination requirement is not a mandate, officials have insisted, and most federal employees who do not get vaccinated will not lose their jobs as a result, CNN previously reported.

But the decision nonetheless marks a pivot away from encouraging Americans to get vaccinated in their own time and stepping toward placing the onus on unvaccinated individuals.

Several groups representing federal workers across the government are already raising concerns about the requirement, including groups representing federal law enforcement officers, IRS managers and members of the US Border Patrol, among others.

Others groups, like the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, have come out in support.

The goal, aides have said, is to render being unvaccinated so burdensome that those who haven't received shots will have little choice other than to get them. It's an approach being tested by leaders in Europe, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who required either proof of vaccination or a negative test at public venues. And some states, including New York, have also said government employees must either prove they've been vaccinated or be tested weekly.

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 requiring vaccines.

The prevalence of the highly contagious Delta variant in the US and low vaccine uptake have led to the federal government to take a number of steps to further mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

Earlier this week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended everyone -- including vaccinated individuals -- wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high Covid-19 transmission. The agency also recommended masks for all K-12 children in schools, even those who have been vaccinated.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also recently announced it would require frontline health care workers to be vaccinated over the course of the next two months.

The latest data from the CDC indicates that 49.4% of the total US population is fully vaccinated. And despite a previous downward slope in the pace of vaccinations, 389,963 people are now initiating vaccination each day, according to the current seven day average.

This is the highest it's been in more than three weeks, but it's still lower than the pace set by millions who were receiving shots every day earlier this year.

On Monday, the Justice Department determined that federal law doesn't prohibit public agencies and private businesses from requiring Covid-19 vaccines -- even if the vaccines have only emergency use authorization so far.

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.

The White House and members of the Biden administration have also previously indicated that they support private companies' decisions to mandate Covid-19 vaccinations.

"Those are decisions the federal government is not going to make," US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. "It's going to be institutions that make them, but I do think that they are very reasonable, because this is a time when we've got to take all steps possible to protect not just ourselves, but the people around us, from Covid-19."

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