WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced sweeping new federal vaccine requirements affecting as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant that is killing thousands each week and jeopardizing the nation’s economic recovery.
The expansive rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans, including many on the North Olympic Peninsula.
The roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.
Biden is also signing an executive order to require vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.
Biden’s plans were previewed Thursday afternoon by White House press secretary Jen Psaki and other senior administration officials ahead of the speech. He was to announce the new requirements in an address from the White House as part of a new “action plan” to address the latest rise in coronavirus cases and the stagnating pace of COVID-19 shots that has raised doubts among the public over his handling of the pandemic.
Just two months ago, Biden prematurely declared the nation’s “independence” from the virus.
Now, despite more than 208 million Americans having at least one dose of the vaccines, the U.S. is seeing about 300 percent more new COVID-19 infections a day, about two-and-a-half times more hospitalizations, and nearly twice the number of deaths compared to the same time last year.
After months of using promotions to drive the vaccination rate, Biden is taking a much firmer hand, as his aides blame people who have not yet received shots for the sharp rise in cases that is killing more than 1,000 people per day and imperiling a fragile economic rebound.
Psaki said Biden’s “overarching objective here is to reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans,” noting about 80 million adults remain unvaccinated.
In addition to the vaccination requirements, Biden is moving to double federal fines for airline passengers who refuse to wear masks on flights or to maintain face covering requirements on federal property in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Biden was also to announce that the federal government will work to increase the supply of virus tests, and that the White House has secured concessions from retailers including Walmart, Amazon, and Kroger to sell at-home testing kits at cost beginning this week.
The administration is to send additional federal support to assist schools in safely operating, including additional funding for testing. And Biden will call for large entertainment venues and arenas to require vaccinations or proof of a negative test for entry.
The requirement for large companies to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing for employees will be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation, an administration official said.
The White House did not immediately say when it would take effect, but said workers would have sufficient time to get vaccinated.
The rule would also require that large companies provide paid time off for vaccination.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will extend a vaccination requirement issued earlier this summer — for nursing home staff — to other health care settings, including hospitals, home-health agencies and dialysis centers.
Separately, the Department of Health and Human Services will require vaccinations in Head Start Programs, as well as schools run by the Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education, affecting about 300,000 employees.
Biden’s order for executive branch workers and contractors includes exceptions for workers seeking religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, according to Psaki. Federal workers and contractors will have 75 days to get fully vaccinated. Workers who don’t comply will be referred to their agencies’ human resources departments for counseling and discipline, to include potential termination.