Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant, President Joe Biden on Thursday announced that all federal employees and onsite contractors must attest to their COVID-19 vaccination status or face regular testing and strict masking, social distancing and travel restrictions.
"I want to talk about what's really happening," the president, who walked into the East Room of the White House wearing a mask, said Thursday. "We need some straight talk right now. Because there's a lot of fear and misinformation in the country, and we need to cut through it — with facts, with science, with the truth."
The new requirements are an acknowledgement that Biden and the federal government – which employs more than 4 million Americans – can do more to boost slumping vaccination rates, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rebound, driven largely by the spread of the more infectious delta variant.
"After months and months of cases going down, we're seeing the spike going up," Biden said.
"Cases will go up further before they start to come back down," Biden added. "But while cases are on the rise, we're not likely to see, according to experts, a comparable rise in hospitalizations or deaths in most areas of the country."
"We've spent the last six months preparing for this possibility," Biden said of the delta variant. "We have the tools to prevent this new wave of COVID from shutting down our businesses, our schools, our society, as we saw happen last year."
Urging Americans to get vaccinated, Biden pleaded with those who are not inoculated against the deadly virus.
"It's an American tragedy. People are dying and will die who don't have to die," Biden said. "If you’re out there unvaccinated, you don’t have to die.”
"Right now too many people are dying or watching someone they love dying," he added.
"America is divided between the majority who are vaccinated, and those who are not," Biden said. "I understand many of you in the majority are frustrated with the consequences of the failure of the minority to get vaccinated."
Biden pledged that he is "going to continue to do everything" he can to encourage vaccinations, including promising to combat vaccine misinformation "head-on."
"The vaccine was developed and authorized under a Republicans administration, and it has been distributed and administered under a Democratic administration," the president said. "Vaccines are safe, highly effective. There's nothing political about them."
Calling the fact that the U.S. has enough vaccines to inoculate everyone in the U.S. an "American blessing," Biden added: "It is such a shame to squander that blessing."
"This isn’t about red states and blue states," Biden said of partisan divisions about COVID-19 vaccines and other health requirements. "It’s about life and death. It’s about life and death."
The president called out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, both prominent Republicans, for stepping up and urging their constitutents to get vaccinated.
Federal employees, the White House said, who do not "attest to being fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job no matter their geographic location, physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply with a weekly or twice weekly screening testing requirement, and be subject to restrictions on official travel."
"We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen quickly and more successfully," the president said.
The Biden administration also called on state and local governments to do more to encourage their citizens to get vaccinated – including offering $100 to those who get inoculated against the novel coronavirus.
The White House said that they have seen "financial incentives serve as a motivating factor" for people to get COVID-19 shots, specifically touting a program from the grocery chain Kroger, which offered $100 to store associates who got fully vaccinated. The grocery chain saw vaccination rates increase from 50% to 75% after implementing the program.
"I know paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have gotten vaccinated already," Biden said. But here's the deal: If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them."
"The American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided states, territories, and localities resources that can be used to offer incentives to increase vaccination rates," the White House noted, with Biden urging the states to use those funds "to provide $100 to anyone who gets vaccinated."
"Today, the President is calling on state, territorial, and local governments to provide $100 payments for every newly vaccinated American, as an extra incentive to boost vaccination rates, protect communities, and save lives," the Treasury Department announced in a release. "Treasury stands ready to give technical assistance to state and local governments so that they may use the funds effectively to support increased vaccination in their communities."
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, has already complied with Biden's request, saying that starting Friday, any Minnesotan who gets vaccinated will get $100.
"All you have to do is roll up your sleeves," Sen. Walz wrote on Twitter.
The White House also announced it would expand the reimbursement of paid leave for businesses to allow their employees to get family members to get vaccinated as well, including kids.
President Biden first announced that reimbursement for employees only in April, and by June, half of businesses had offered their workers paid time off to get the shot, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
On the subject of schools, Biden said that "every school should be open" in the fall, conveying the need for students to have in-person learning.
To that end, Biden asked school districts nationwide to "host at least one pop-up vaccination clinic over the coming weeks."
"We can and we must open schools this fall full time," Biden said, touting the success of getting teachers and school staff immunized by prioritizing them in March when vaccines were scarce.
The Department of Defense will ask all U.S. military and civilian DOD personnel to provide their COVID-19 vaccination status and will move forward with making vaccination a requirement, the department said in a news release issued Thursday.
“Personnel unable or unwilling to do that will be required to wear a mask, physically distance, comply with regular testing requirement and be subject to official travel restrictions,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Jamal Brown said in the release.
Officials highlighted the Department of Veterans Affairs’ decision this week to require the shot for its employees.
“Too many veterans have already lost their lives to this virus,” a White House fact sheet on the new vaccination push read. “Veterans and their families deserve nothing less than us doing everything we can to protect their health.”
Biden's announcement comes on the heels of the CDC's updated masking guidance, which includes recommending that even fully vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors in areas of the country where COVID-19 is spreading.
"The CDC recommends you wear a mask when you're in public and indoors, like work or in a grocery store," Biden said Thursday of the CDC's new guidance. "That's true for both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated."
Biden said that in places where there are high vaccination rates, people do not need to wear masks.
The move comes the same week that the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it will require many of its frontline medical workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, the first federal agency to do so.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said the agency is mandating vaccines "because it’s the best way to keep Veterans safe, especially as the Delta variant spreads across the country."
"Whenever a Veteran or VA employee sets foot in a VA facility, they deserve to know that we have done everything in our power to protect them from COVID-19. With this mandate, we can once again make — and keep — that fundamental promise," McDonough said in a statement.
VA employees will have eight weeks to be fully vaccinated, the agency said in a statement.
The Department of Justice recently determined that federal law does not prohibit private businesses or public agencies from implementing vaccine mandates, even if those vaccines are allowed under emergency use authorization. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came to the same conclusion.
But on the subject of a wider mandate, Biden demurred.
"It’s still a question of whether the federal government can mandate the whole country," Biden said. "I don’t know that yet."
State lawmakers across the U.S. have introduced more than 100 bills aiming to prohibit employers from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. At least six states have approved such bills.
The move also comes after more than 50 major medical organizations called for mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations of U.S. health care workers.
The joint statement was issued by 56 groups representing doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care employees. The organizations include the American Medical Association, American Nursing Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Public Health Association.
The statement asserted that getting vaccinated “is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first.”
“As we move towards full FDA approval of the currently available vaccines, all health care workers should get vaccinated for their own health, and to protect their colleagues, families, residents of long-term care facilities and patients,” the statement says. “This is especially necessary to protect those who are vulnerable, including unvaccinated children and the immunocompromised.”
The urgent call comes as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise again, predominantly among the unvaccinated. Fueled by the more contagious delta variant, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Friday had climbed to 47,455 — four times higher than it was a month earlier.
Meanwhile, just north of 49% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and 30 states have immunized less than half their populations.
The president also noted that many Americans "are wondering if you need a booster shot to add another layer of protection."
“As my medical advisers say, the answer is no," Biden said. "But if the science tells us there's a need for boosters, then that's something we'll do. And we have purchased all the supply we need to be ready."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.