Biden to Order Vast Majority of Federal Workers and Contractors to Get Vaccinated

White House officials said that Mr. Biden would also detail initiatives meant to pressure private businesses, federal agencies and schools.,

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Biden is expected to require the vast majority of federal workers and contractors to get vaccinated.

President Biden has addressed the nation about vaccines before, including this time in May.
President Biden has addressed the nation about vaccines before, including this time in May.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
  • Sept. 9, 2021Updated 11:45 a.m. ET

President Biden on Thursday will sign executive orders requiring the vast majority of federal workers and contractors who do business with the government to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. They are part of an aggressive new plan to that will also put pressure on private businesses, states and schools to enact stricter vaccination and testing policies as the Delta variant continues its spread across the United States.

The mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services — a work force that numbers more than four million — but not to those who work for Congress or the federal court system, according to a person familiar with the plan.

The spread of the highly infectious variant had pushed the country’s daily average caseload over 150,000 for the first time since late January, overwhelming hospitals in hard-hit areas and killing roughly 1,500 people a day. The surge has alarmed Mr. Biden and his top health advisers, who see mass vaccination as the only way to bring the pandemic under control.

Mr. Biden, who was briefed by his team of coronavirus advisers on Wednesday afternoon, is set to deliver a speech at 5 p.m. Eastern that will address about six areas where his administration can encourage — or, at this point, push — more eligible Americans to receive vaccines.

Mr. Biden had already pushed federal workers to get vaccinated by announcing that those who refused would have to undergo regular coronavirus testing. But the surge, coupled with last month’s decision by the Food and Drug Administration to grant full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to those 16 and older, has made him decide to take more aggressive steps, eliminating the option of testing, the officials said.

The mandates are a marked shift for a president who, mindful of the contentious political climate around vaccination, initially steered away from any talk of making vaccines mandatory. But the F.D.A. approval — which also prompted the Pentagon to require its employees to get vaccinated — has clearly strengthened Mr. Biden’s hand.

“Never before have we mandated a vaccine throughout the federal work force, the National Guard, among government contractors and also using the bully pulpit to try to influence businesses and universities and cities and states to do the same,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.

Still, Mr. Gostin said, there is much more the president could do. He has already exercised his executive authority to require masks on airplanes and interstate trains and buses, and could similarly mandate vaccination for international or interstate travel — a step that Mr. Gostin described as “low-hanging fruit.”

One thing Mr. Biden cannot do is require all Americans to get vaccinated; in the United States, vaccinations are the province of the states. But Mr. Gostin said the president could also dangle the prospect of federal funding to prod states to require their own workers to get vaccinated, and his administration could offer technical guidance to states that want to develop “vaccine passports” for people to provide digital proof of vaccination.

More than 75 percent of American adults have taken at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, but overall, just 53 percent of the public is fully vaccinated. Bringing the overall number up will require more than cajoling; roughly 45 million children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination. And surveys show that about 14 percent of Americans say they are unlikely to ever get vaccinated.

Two officials familiar with Mr. Biden’s plan said that its underlying message would be that the only way to return to some sense of normalcy was to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

“We know that increasing vaccinations will stop the spread of the pandemic, will get the pandemic under control, will return people to normal life,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s what our objective is, so we want to be specific about what we’re trying to achieve.”

When asked if Mr. Biden would be adding more detail to existing policies or would outline measures that would have an immediate and broad effect on Americans, Ms. Psaki replied: “It depends on if you’re vaccinated or not.”

Administration officials see signs that more people in the United States are open to receiving shots — some 14 million got their first shots in August, four million more than in July, Ms. Psaki said. But about 27 percent of the eligible U.S. population age 12 and older have not received any Covid vaccinations, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some of the hardest-hit states, the unvaccinated percentage is higher: 42 percent in Texas, for instance, and 38 percent in Florida.

About 1.3 million fully vaccinated people have received a third shot after federal officials approved them for people with compromised immune systems. Mr. Biden has publicly supported the idea of broadening the availability of third shots as boosters for much more of the population, but health experts have advised the White House to hold off promoting that for now.

On Wednesday, Ms. Psaki said that the White House was working toward a plan for boosters, but did not give a time frame. She told reporters that Mr. Biden had chosen Thursday to deliver an extensive speech on the virus because he understood it was “top of mind for Americans” as they return to schools and offices.

The president will also be seeking to course-correct after a difficult month for his administration, directing the public away from a chaotic and violent end to the war in Afghanistan and back toward his administration’s efforts to curb a pandemic that has upended every facet of American life.

But amid renewed fears of the virus’s damaging effect on the economy and the prevalence of a troublesome variant, even Mr. Biden’s allies say it will take more than a speech to ease concerns that the virus has once again spiraled out of a president’s control.

“He ran on competence, bringing adults back into the room,” said Nick Rathod, a former domestic policy adviser to President Barack Obama. “This is something that he needs to take control of and show his level of competency. I think that’s why he was hired.”

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