The Department of Health and Human Services will require COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 25,000 members of its health care workforce in light of the highly transmissible delta variant, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra announced Thursday.
"Our number one goal is the health and safety of the American public, including our federal workforce. And vaccines are the best tool we have to protect people from COVID-19, prevent the spread of the Delta variant, and save lives," HHS Secretary Becerra said in a statement.
“As President Biden has said, we have to do all we can to increase vaccinations to keep more people safe," he continued. "Instructing our HHS health care workforce to get vaccinated will protect our federal workers and the patients and people they serve."
The move follows Veterans Affairs mandating vaccines for its 115,000 frontline health care workers nationwide last month, the first federal agency to do so. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced earlier this week that U.S. service members will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19, citing military readiness.
The decision from HHS also follows a recent announcement from President Joe Biden that will require all federal employees and contractors to attest to their vaccination status or be subject to strict masking, social distancing and travel requirements. Other HHS employees not covered in this mandate will fall under President Biden's order.
States and localities are also instituting similar requirements – including the state of California and New York City – though in other states, local and state governments are clashing over restrictions for vaccine and mask mandates. Florida and Texas, both led by Republican governors, are battling school districts in their own states’ urban, heavily Democratic areas over whether students should be required to mask up as they head back to school.
Private companies have also begun mandating vaccines, including McDonald's, United Airlines, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Pfizer, Doordash, Walmart and The Walt Disney Company.
Despite widespread availability of effective vaccines at no cost to patients, only about half the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. New COVID-19 cases have surged past 100,000 a day, a level not seen since the deadly wave of the fall and winter gained momentum last November.
Hardest hit in this latest wave are states with low levels of vaccination and high resistance to government public health directives. But no area of the country is immune. The delta variant is highly efficient at spreading, allowing it to become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. in a matter of weeks.
Employers have broad leeway to require their workers to get vaccinated as a “condition of employment,” similar to other rules governing the workplace. Under federal law, workers with religious objections or a medical condition may be entitled to exemptions, as long as that doesn’t disrupt the workplace.
The new requirement at HHS will provide for similar medical and religious accommodations.
Officials noted that the employees affected are already required to get annual flu shots and other routine vaccinations. But the Food and Drug Administration still has not issued a full approval for the coronavirus vaccines, only emergency use authorization. That’s thought to be contributing to some people’s reluctance to get vaccinated, although more than 190 million shots have been administered in the United States. with few reported cases of serious side effects and mounting evidence of effectiveness.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.