No More Half-Measures: Biden Signals New Era in Struggle Against Covid-19

Facing an increasing number of new Covid-19 cases and deaths, President Joe Biden Thursday unveiled a more aggressive strategy in his war on the novel coronavirus — most notably, expansive federal vaccine requirements estimated to impact as many as 100 million Americans. In a speech, Biden outlined other details of his new six-step plan aimed directly at stopping the rapid spread of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 — while calling out those who have refused inoculation. 

​​“Despite having an unprecedented and successful vaccination program, despite the fact that for almost five months, free vaccines have been available at 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot,” the president said. “What more is there to wait for? What more do you need to see?” 

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“We’ve been patient,” he added. “But our patience is wearing thin.”

This updated Covid-19 plan comes only two months after Biden announced that the United States was “closer than ever to declaring our independence” from the deadly virus. When the president made his July 4th remarks, there was an average of roughly 12,000 new Covid cases and approximately 200 deaths per day. As of today, those figures have jumped to around 150,000 new cases and 1,500 deaths a day.

In addition to increasing vaccination rates, the new White House strategy will also focus on safely keeping schools open, improving mitigation measures like testing and masking, ensuring continued protection for those who are fully vaccinated, the country’s economic recovery, and improving care for those currently living with Covid-19. 

Vaccine mandates hit as many as 100 million Americans

Biden wasted no time putting his new Covid-19 response plan into action, announcing two executive orders mandating Covid-19 vaccination for the vast majority of executive branch federal workers and contractors — this time, without the option of undergoing regular testing instead. 

The mandate does, however, allow federal employees to seek religious or medical exemptions from vaccination. Their colleagues, on the other hand, have 75 days to get fully vaccinated or face consequences set by their agencies’ human resources departments, ranging from counseling, to discipline, to potential termination, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a press briefing Thursday afternoon.

But unvaccinated private sector employees aren’t off the hook: the president also noted that the Department of Labor is currently developing a new emergency rule, requiring employers with 100 or more people to ensure their employees are fully vaccinated, or show a negative test at least once a week. This policy alone will impact more than 80 million workers in private sector businesses: roughly the same number of Americans eligible for Covid-19 vaccination who have yet to receive their first shot, according to the plan released today by the White House.

In addition to their previous vaccine mandate for nursing home staff, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is now requiring healthcare workers employed in hospitals and other medical or home health facilities to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 — a policy affecting approximately 17 million people.

According to Dr. Howard P. Forman, professor of radiology and public health, and director of the health care management program at the Yale School of Public Health, it’s unfortunate that Covid-19 vaccination has become so divisive an issue that it necessitates employer mandates, but the policies do appear to represent a means to protect both the workforce and the public who interacts with its members. 

“Our best evidence suggests that the vaccines reduce — though not eliminate by any stretch — transmission,” he tells Rolling Stone. “This means that near-unanimous compliance with vaccination can allow workspaces to approach pre-pandemic normal operations.” 

“Our patience is wearing thin” 

Though Biden has repeatedly highlighted the need to increase the country’s vaccination rates, his speech on Thursday struck a different, much more forceful tone when addressing those who still refuse the vaccine. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated that’s caused by the fact that despite America having an unprecedented and successful vaccination program — despite the fact that for almost five months, free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations — we still have nearly 80 million Americans who fail to get the shot,” he said. 

Next up on Biden’s list: the politicians who promote the messaging of the anti-vaccination movement. “Elected officials are actively working to undermine the fight against Covid-19,” he said. “Instead of encouraging people to get vaccinated and mask up, they’re ordering mobile morgues for the unvaccinated dying from Covid in our communities. This is totally unacceptable.” The president went on to note his frustration with the fact that “we have the tools to combat Covid-19, and a distinct minority of Americans supported by a distinct minority of elected officials are keeping us from turning the corner.”

According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security, Biden’s direct approach was necessary. “We have to put the blame squarely where it is,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We have to identify what the problem is. We cannot play games and act as if this isn’t being caused by people’s willful shunning of the vaccine. It’s mind boggling because what’s happening now in the United States is deliberate, it is willful. It isn’t something that the virus is doing — it’s what humans are doing to themselves and to their own community hospitals.”

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