WASHINGTON — More than 80 million employees of private businesses in the U.S. will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing as part of the Biden administration’s latest strategy for combating the still-surging coronavirus pandemic.
The upcoming vaccine rule for companies with at least 100 employees is one plank of an increasingly aggressive effort by President Joe Biden and his administration to ensure Americans are protected against the virus.
Biden rolled out his six-pronged strategy Thursday afternoon, which included more vaccine requirements for other settings as well. The vast majority of federal employees and contractors will have a new mandate, and the 17 million health care workers at facilities participating in the federal Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs.
“It’s not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said in a speech from the White House. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you.”
The White House also will try to make at-home testing more accessible; push to vaccinate the 10% of school teachers and staffers who are not vaccinated; extend the federal mask requirement on planes through Jan. 18 (and doubling fines for non-compliance); and offer more clinicians to support COVID-19-burdened hospitals in states with too little capacity to treat a surge in patients.
Those strategies come as the country is averaging 150,000 new COVID-19 infections each day, a massive spike from the weekly average of 12,000 cases on July 4, when Biden told Americans that the U.S. was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”
Since then, states across the country have struggled to keep up with hospitals that are filled to capacity. The vast majority of those patients are among the nearly 80 million Americans eligible to be vaccinated but who have not yet gotten their first shot.
Biden lauded the three in four Americans who had gotten at least one shot, and said that even with the delta variant wreaking havoc, the path ahead “is not nearly as bad as last winter.”
But he expressed frustration that while the country has tools to combat COVID-19, “a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner.”
Require vaccines or face fines
All together, the new vaccine requirements that Biden outlined would affect about 100 million workers, or two-thirds of all workers in the U.S., according to a senior administration official.
The requirement for businesses will be enacted through a new rule in the coming weeks from the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.
That rule will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated, or to require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work, according to a summary released by the administration.
Employees would have time to get a vaccine if they have not done so already, likely in line with the 75 days that federal employees will have to get the one- or two-shot vaccines.
Any companies that do not enforce the rule could be issued fines of up to nearly $14,000 per violation, according to a senior Biden official.
Some of the country’s largest corporations, from Tyson Foods to United Airlines, already have announced their own vaccination requirements, and 21 states have some form of vaccine mandate in place, covering state employees, nursing home workers, staffers in schools, or some combination of those employment settings, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But the requirement still is expected to face intense opposition, particularly in places with high levels of vaccine resistance. At least 11 states have passed some version of a law prohibiting vaccine requirements, according to KFF.
U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, (R-Ariz.), tweeted that he intends to introduce legislation “to block this egregious assault on Americans’ freedom and liberty.”
School safety, testing availability
To boost safety in schools, where most K-12 students are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, Biden will urge states to require teachers and other school staffers to be vaccinated.
So far, nine states and the District of Columbia have vaccination requirements for K-12 staffers, including New Jersey and New Mexico.
He also will require employees of the federal Head Start early education program to be vaccinated, along with those working in schools operated by the Department of Defense Schools, and Bureau of Indian Education.
His administration already has launched civil rights investigations in five states that have banned local districts from enacting universal mask-mandates, and has reiterated its promise to provide any funding that a state might withhold for violating those bans.
To maintain in-person learning, Biden is urging schools to set up regular testing for students, teachers, and staff consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
His administration also is seeking to make testing more easily available to other Americans. Three major retailers — Walmart, Amazon, and Kroger — have said they will sell rapid, at-home tests at-cost for the next three months, which would reduce the price tag of those tests by up to 35%.
More help for besieged states
The president also is promising more aid to states that have seen the largest burdens from rising hospitalizations.
Biden’s proposal calls for doubling the number of clinician teams that the Department of Defense deploys to support hospitals battling COVID-19 cases. Those federal surge teams have worked in 18 states, according to the administration, sending nearly 1,000 EMTs, nurses and doctors to provide care.
Those teams will continue, according to Biden’s proposal. A new effort will provide monoclonal antibody strike teams, who can offer and train others to offer that key treatment option. New regulatory changes also will expand which providers can administer it, adding pharmacists.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also addressed the pandemic yesterday and promised to review the administration’s new initiative. “We’ll look at what the feds do over the next couple of months, cause it’s going to take them a while to ramp up and we’ll see how effective our verification requirement is for state employees,” said Cooper. “The idea is to get more shots in arms. Right now since our state verification requirement has just taken effect, we want to see how this works and continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.”