As expected, President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday afternoon that, for the sake of ensuring the safety of federal workers and contractors, every federal worker or onsite contractor “will be asked to affirm their vaccination status.” Any worker who does not affirm that they are fully vaccinated will be subject to wearing a mask in the workplace, as well as facing frequent tests for COVID-19. That announcement was expected, and aligns with the requirements that state and local officials have now issued in California, New Mexico, and New York City. All visitors to federal buildings will be required to wear a mask.
In the course of his speech, Biden also encouraged governors to use funding from the American Recovery Act to provide incentives to those willing to be fully vaccinated. More importantly, he expanded a program that already offered to pay employers for giving their employees time off to be vaccinated. Under the new rules, time off will also be provided to take relatives to be vaccinated. So now employees can take time to get their spouse, parents, or adolescent children vaccinated without missing pay.
Biden’s announcement also included news that he would “Direct 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.” This follows an earlier decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs to require all health care workers to be fully vaccinated.
That statement is going to clearly spark a lot of huffing and puffing on the right. And they should really take that up with that vaccine tyrant, George Washington. As National Geographic notes, Washington “ordered all troops inoculated [against smallpox], noting to his leading medical officer that ‘necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure.’“
Biden began by taking off his mask and saying that if he was in his home state of Delaware, he wouldn’t need a mask “because people got vaccinated.” Biden then said it was time to “cut through” the “great deal of misinformation in the country with facts and science.”
The increased number of cases were, explained Biden, because of the delta variant. However, he said that while cases are up, hospitalizations and deaths were not expected to rise by nearly as much because the most vulnerable Americans—those over 65—are also the most vaccinated. Biden praised those who had worked to develop and deploy the vaccine.
Biden reviewed the new advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending the use of masks in areas with high levels of transmission. He explained that even the fully vaccinated can spread the delta variant, and may spread it to someone who is not vaccinated.
While endorsing the return of masks in high-risk areas, Biden insisted that the way to end the pandemic was through vaccines. “The bottom line is, if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re highly protected from COVID-19.” Biden acknowledged that there are breakthrough cases, as there are against vaccines for other diseases.
He stated that as of now, no American needs to seek a “booster shot” after being fully vaccinated. Instead, the better way to get the vaccinated protected is to get the unvaccinated vaccinated. Speaking again of the “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Biden called the fact that 99% of those dying were unvaccinated “an American tragedy” and referred sadly to the cases of people who only began asking for the vaccine after they were hospitalized with serious symptoms.
He also spoke to the frustration that the vaccinated feel because the minority of unvaccinated people are now prolonging the pandemic and causing things like the return of masks, forcing the vaccinated to be stuck with restrictions when life should be getting back to normal. Biden went out of his way to praise Sen. Mitch McConnell for speaking up to say he had been vaccinated, and even tossed a compliment to “commentators on television” who have begun speaking more favorably about the vaccine.
“With freedom comes responsibility,” said Biden. He noted that leaders from other countries were calling him every day trying to get more vaccine, and that he was trying to answer those requests while making sure there was enough vaccine for every American.
Biden called out employers who are not providing paid leave to employees to get vaccinated. He reminded everyone that this program costs employers nothing, and called not making leave available “unacceptable.” Biden announced an extension of the program that pays employers back for time off when taking family members to get vaccinated. Citing programs in New Mexico and Colorado, Biden encouraged governors across the country to give a $100 incentive to anyone who gets fully vaccinated.
He then noted that in addition to incentives, it’s now time to impose requirements to get people vaccinated. Biden spoke to how Veterans Affairs has already implemented requirements, then pivoted to the need for the Defense Department to keep those in the military healthy so they can meet the needs of the nation.
Biden followed up by saying “if you want to do work with the federal government, get vaccinated.” He explained that the requirements for federal employers and contractors will also include restrictions on travel for those who do not get vaccinated. “The Justice Department has made it clear that it is legal to require COVID-19 vaccines.”
After speaking about federal workers, Biden turned to schools, saying that it was vital that children return to school and that “we can’t afford another year out of the classroom.” He pointed out that the American Rescue Plan contained funds expressly for improving conditions in schools, including providing more space and ventilation. But Biden said that staff should be vaccinated, children should be masked, and more kids between 12 and 17 should be vaccinated. Biden called on school districts to host “pop-up vaccination clinics” to get adolescents vaccinated now, and promised that vaccines for younger kids will be made available as soon as testing shows they are safe.
At the end of the speech Biden spoke again to both those vaccinated who are angry about the delay, and the unvaccinated who are “still unconvinced.” He reminded everyone of just how bad things were in January, and just how much progress has been made. That means not just hundreds of millions of vaccine doses, but deaths hugely down and jobs returning. ”I know we hoped this would be a simple, straightforward line without challenges or setbacks, but that isn’t real life.” Ticking off the total number of deaths and comparing it to all the wars of the last century, Biden said, “this is as tough as it gets,” but insisted that if America follows the science, we can beat the virus and restore our nation.
“I say this to all the unvaccinated: Please, please get vaccinated. To the rest of America: We just need to finish the job with science, facts, and truth.”
During questioning, Biden said that while a booster shot is not needed now, it might be possible in the future. As for masks, Biden noted that there are a lot of places where people don’t have to wear masks at all—what’s required is to lower the transmission, and masks are going to be required “where a high rate of unvaccination stays high.”
Asked if Biden was trying to “set up pressure” for vaccinated versus unvaccinated, Biden said that the unvaccinated “represent a problem, to yourself, your family, and to where you work.” He emphasized that he wasn’t trying to set up a conflict, but to keep people safe.
When asked whether he wants states and private companies to impose vaccine mandates, Biden encouraged them to do so, but said it was “still an open question” as to whether he could mandate that everyone get vaccinated … which was an interesting response.
When it came to how his system didn’t require proof of vaccination, Biden said that those flying overseas would certainly need proof, and that more and more businesses and organizations might start requesting that proof—and that they legally can.
In the course of questioning, Biden was clear that the current emergency use authorization for the vaccines was still a temporary approval, but stated that he was not going to try to push the FDA into hurrying the approval because it’s essential that approval not be seen as political. Still, he said he expected formal approval “soon.”
As Biden tried to leave the room, a right-wing journalist (off screen) tried to ambush him with a claim that Biden had said people would never have to wear a mask again. Biden was clearly angered as he responded that when the CDC issued guidance in May, there was an assumption that people would get vaccinated. Instead vaccinations slowed, a new variant came along, cases increased, and now masks are needed again. “That’s it.”