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Even in the face of the Delta variant, a growing body of evidence shows that being vaccinated is the most effective way to protect yourself from COVID-19—especially in preventing death or hospitalization from the disease. Recently, full approval of the Pfizer vaccine from the U.S. Food&Drug Administration (FDA) led to a surge in new vaccine mandates from local officials in places like New York and San Francisco, who've made the shots a requirement to enter certain indoor spaces such as bars, restaurants, theaters, and gyms. Until now, these changes have so far been limited to the city or state level. But on Sept. 9, President Joe Biden announced that the White House is making a major set of changes that will require millions more people to be vaccinated nationwide.
Biden revealed that he's issuing a rule that all employers with more than 100 workers must require employees to be fully vaccinated or get tested for COVID weekly. The shift will affect about 80 million Americans, Biden said. The Associated Press (AP) also reports that an administration official said on a call with members of the press ahead of Biden's speech that any companies that do not adhere to the new mandate will face penalties of up to $14,000 per violation.
An additional 17 million health care workers who treat patients on Medicare or Medicaid will also be required to be fully vaccinated, Biden said.
"My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there is there to wait for? What more do you need to see?" Biden asked. "We've made vaccinations free, safe, and convenient. The vaccine is FDA-approved. Over 200 million Americans have gotten at least one shot. We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us. So please, do the right thing."
Biden also suggested large entertainment venues, sports arenas, and movie theaters require vaccinations or proof of a negative test for all patrons looking to enter. He called on doctors to reach out to unvaccinated patients personally and ask them to get vaccinated over the next two weeks.
And he asked governors to require teachers to be vaccinated against COVID as well. "Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs," Biden said, taking aim at governors in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. "If these governors won't help us beat the pandemic, I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way. … Any teacher or school official whose pay is withheld for doing the right thing, we will have that pay restored by the federal government, 100 percent. I promise you. I will have your back."
The president is also signing an executive order that will require vaccination for federal employees with no option to test out. Earlier in the day, The New York Times reported that two officials familiar with the plan said more than four million executive branch employees across federal agencies and the armed services will be affected by the new mandate.
However, there are "limited exceptions for legally recognized reasons such as disability or religious objections," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a Sept. 9 briefing prior to Biden's speech. She noted that federal workers will have 75 days to get fully vaccinated.
"The federal workforce is one of the largest in the country and we would like to be a model to what we think other businesses and organizations should do around the country," Psaki added.
The announcement comes as areas around the U.S. have struggled with surges of new infections, a spike in hospitalizations and deaths, and a lag in vaccination rates—which many top health officials view as vital to combating the virus. "We know that increasing vaccinations will stop the spread of the pandemic, will get the pandemic under control, [and] will return people to normal life," Psaki told reporters on Sept. 8. "That's what our objective is, so we want to be specific about what we're trying to achieve."
During an interview with Axios on Sept. 9, Anthony Fauci, MD, chief White House COVID adviser, said that the current COVID surge was proof that more citizens need to be vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19. "The endgame is to suppress the virus," Fauci said. "Right now, we're still in pandemic mode, because we have 160,000 new infections a day. That's not even modestly good control … which means it's a public health threat."
The top health official explained that numbers would have to come way down to get the virus under control. "In a country of our size, you can't be hanging around and having 100,000 infections a day. You've got to get well below 10,000 before you start feeling comfortable," he explained.
But Fauci was also quick to caution that bringing COVID-19 under control didn't necessarily mean eradicating it completely. He explained that even when enough of the population has been vaccinated, "you'll still get some people getting infected, but you're not going to have it as a public health threat."