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The Biden administration will demand that companies force employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to weekly testing as part of a plan designed to curb the rapid spread of the Delta variant.
The US president announced a number of new measures on Thursday evening — including a threat to fire unvaccinated government workers — as part of a wider effort to boost flagging inoculation rates.
Biden issued his strongest denunciation of people who have not yet been vaccinated, saying “a distinct minority” of Americans and elected officials “are keeping us from turning the corner”.
“These pandemic politics are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die,” he said. “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”
Under a plan to be finalised by the Department of Labor, medium and large companies with 100 workers or more will be told to force their employees either to be vaccinated or to make them test at least once a week before coming to work. The rule would effect about 80m people in the private sector, White House officials said — roughly half of the US workforce.
A separate executive order signed by Biden will direct federal government employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and workers will no longer be able to avoid the requirement by submitting to regular testing and wearing a mask. Contractors will also be subject to the same rules, which will cover an estimated 2.5m people, although there will be some exemptions for people on the grounds of religion or certain medical conditions.
In total, officials said the mandates — including an expansion of vaccine requirements for healthcare workers — applied to about 100m people, or about two-thirds of the US workforce.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the White House wanted the federal workforce to be “a model [of] what we think other businesses and organisations should do”.
Federal workers have 75 days to be fully vaccinated, Psaki added, after which they will be placed in a disciplinary process and face termination if they continue to refuse.
The administration announced the vaccine mandates after the number of new cases climbed to about 140,000 a day, a level last seen in the spring before vaccines were universally available.
Despite the government’s warnings about the risk to unvaccinated people, the US jab rate is lower than in many European countries despite plentiful supplies.
Biden administration officials have blamed politicians such as Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, for hindering the vaccination drive with policies such as banning businesses from demanding proof of vaccination from customers.
For the first time, Biden expressed exasperation at vaccine-hesitant. “Over 200m Americans have gotten at least one shot,” he said. “We have been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. Your refusal has cost all of us — please do the right thing.”
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The Business Roundtable, which represents some of the largest US companies in Washington, said it welcomed the move, noting that many companies had already implemented vaccine mandates in recent weeks. Larger companies have led the charge in mandating vaccinations, but some smaller companies have been more reluctant.
Devjani Mishra, an employment lawyer at Littler Mendelson, said the rule for private companies would have a significant effect. Given the costs and administrative burden of rolling out a testing regime for staff, she said she expected many employers simply to impose a strict vaccine mandate.
“This is a game changer,” she added. “Many clients . . . have been reluctant to impose mandates because they didn’t want to lose their workforce. But if it is not up to the individual employer . . . that takes the pressure off.”
Alongside the stricter vaccine mandates, the Biden administration is also calling on large entertainment venues such as sports stadiums or concert halls to demand customers show either proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test.
The US government will spend nearly $2bn to buy 280m rapid Covid tests to use in places where the disease is likely to spread, such as care homes, homeless shelters and prisons.
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