US president Joe Biden has announced sweeping new pandemic requirements aimed at boosting vaccination rates for millions of federal workers and contractors, as he lamented the “American tragedy” of deaths among the unvaccinated.
Federal workers will be required to sign forms attesting they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else comply with new rules on mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing and more.
The strict new guidelines are aimed at increasing sluggish vaccination rates among the huge number of Americans who draw federal paycheques – and to set an example for private employers around the country.
Mr Biden said at the White House: “Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say: ‘If I’d just got the vaccine.’”
“This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die.”
However, Mr Biden is certain to meet resistance. His comments put him squarely in the centre of a fierce political debate surrounding the government’s ability to compel Americans to follow public health guidelines.
The federal government directly employs about four million people, but Mr Biden’s action could affect many more when federal contractors are factored in.
New York University professor of public service Paul Light estimates there are nearly seven million more employees who could potentially be included, combining those who work for companies that contract with the government and those working under federal grants.
Mr Biden, seemingly fed up with persistent vaccine resistance among many Americans, delivered a sharp rebuke to those who have yet to get their jabs, saying “they get sick and fill up our hospitals”, taking beds away from others who need them.
“If in fact you are unvaccinated, you present a problem to yourself, to your family and those with whom you work,” he said bluntly.
At the same time, he expressed sympathy for people who have received their shots and are “frustrated with the consequences of the minority that fail to get vaccinated”.
And he again emphasised that the fight against the virus is far from over, telling Americans to remain strong in the face of setbacks in the pandemic.
“I know this is hard to hear. I know it’s frustrating. I know it’s exhausting to think we’re still in this fight. I know we hoped this would be a simple straightforward line, without problems or new challenges. But that isn’t real life,” he said.
His comments came as some 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated.
The US leader had set a July 4 goal to get at least one jab in 70% of adults, and is still not quite there. The latest figure is 69.3%. And there remains significant resistance from many Republicans and some unions to vaccine mandates for employers.
He also directed the US defence department to look into adding the Covid-19 jab to its list of required vaccinations for members of the military.
Service members already are required to get as many as 17 vaccines, depending on where they are based around the world.
Mr Biden also praised the recent increase in Republican members of congress urging those who are not vaccinated – many of whom, polling suggests, identify as conservatives – to get their jabs.
And, seeking to push back against scepticism among some Republicans over the safety of the vaccine, he gave a nod to predecessor Donald Trump, noting that it was “developed and authorized under a Republican administration”.
Mr Biden said: “This is not about red states and blue states. It’s literally about life and death, life and death.”
However, there has been some resistance to Mr Biden’s call, particularly from unions.
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents 30,000 federal officers and agents, said that while the organisation supports the vaccine, it opposes compelling it.
“Forcing people to undertake a medical procedure is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it,” he said.