Biden to require federal workers to be vaccinated or take regular tests

By Michael D. Shear

President Joe Biden will formally announce on Thursday that all civilian federal employees must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or be forced to submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel, two people familiar with the president’s plans said Wednesday.

White House officials said the administration was still reviewing details of the policy, which the president was expected to announce in a speech from the White House. In a statement on Tuesday, Biden said his remarks would reveal “the next steps in our effort to get more Americans vaccinated.”

The president’s move was expected to be similar to an announcement on Wednesday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who said tens of thousands of state employees would be required to show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly testing. Cuomo also said that “patient facing” health care workers at state-run hospitals would be required to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment.

Other governments around the country are beginning to put in place similar arrangements as well, as the highly contagious delta variant has caused cases to balloon in recent weeks. New York City announced this week that it would require all 300,000 city employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. California also unveiled a plan to require vaccinations for state employees.

The federal plan is not expected to force employees to get a shot unless they work directly with patients at hospitals run by the Veterans Affairs Department. But public health officials are hoping that the prospect of extra burdens for the unvaccinated will help persuade more people to get one.

People familiar with Biden’s announcement said it was part of a long-standing discussion about how to bring most federal workers back to the office after nearly a year and a half in which hundreds of thousands of them worked from home because of the pandemic.

A team from a series of agencies has been working on that plan for months, trying to juggle the concerns of employees and the need to keep the government functioning. One concern that officials confronted was how to require vaccinations without potentially prompting critical employees to quit, undermining the government’s mission.

But the president’s announcement comes as the administration is under pressure to increase the rate of vaccinations in the country. About half of all Americans have been fully vaccinated, but the number of people getting shots has slowed significantly from the early months of the year.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy White House press secretary, declined on Wednesday to provide details of the president’s speech, but said the general approach was to give employees a choice that would hopefully encourage them to get vaccinated.

The plan, she told reporters, is aimed at “confirming vaccination status or abiding by stringent COVID-19 protocols, like mandatory mask wearing, even in communities not with high or subsequent substantial spread, and regular testing.”

White House officials left open the possibility that some parts of the federal government might follow the lead of the Veterans Affairs Department and go further. That could include requiring employees who are in critical positions or deal directly with vulnerable populations to be vaccinated if they want to keep their job.

“We’ve also said requirements for vaccination may be under consideration for certain entities within the government,” Jean-Pierre said.

Biden’s decision to embrace stricter vaccine rules for federal workers follows days of deliberations and reflects the growing concern among top federal health officials about the delta variant.

Those concerns prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise its recommendations for mask wearing this week, telling Americans that they should wear face coverings indoors in areas of the country where the spread of the virus is significant.

On Wednesday, officials at the Defense Department issued a statement saying that all military employees in those parts of the country should wear masks in all department facilities. That included the Pentagon just outside Washington, which is set to begin requiring people inside the building to wear a mask.

“Today’s announcement applies to all service members, federal personnel, contractors and visitors when indoors at all properties owned by the department in those areas, in accordance with updated CDC guidelines,” said Jamal Brown, a deputy Pentagon press secretary.

But officials have said the best way to avoid getting sick from the virus is to be vaccinated. Recent research has shown vaccines remain effective against the worst outcomes of COVID-19, including those involving the delta variant.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has indicated that he will wait to require the vaccine for all members of the military until the Food and Drug Administration has given final approval for the shots, which are currently being administered under an emergency use authorization. Biden could overrule Austin, but officials said he was unlikely to do that.

Asked by a reporter on Tuesday whether he would require vaccinations for the nation’s nearly 2 million federal workers, Biden was blunt.

“That’s under consideration right now,” he said. “But if you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were.”

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