One week after President Joe Biden announced that all employees and in-person contractors of the federal government will be required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 in order to return to the workplace, the government is still figuring out how to implement it.
The attestation system that Biden envisions is unprecedented in its scale and scope, dwarfing efforts by everything from Walmart to the Met Gala to start requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order for Americans to work, eat, drink and play. Despite that, the details of how it all will work have remained relatively unclear, with many officials across the federal government still waiting for an official timeline and process for clearing employees to return to work without restrictions.
“Each workplace is going to look different because the federal government is very diverse in terms of what its workplaces look like—some places will be able to do this quicker than others,” a White House official told The Daily Beast. “A lot of this is in process. There’s millions of employees and it’s been four days.”
The current plan to require vaccination for the more than 2 million people in the federal civilian workforce, officials told The Daily Beast, will not mirror the efforts of some cities and states to create a federal vaccine passport, or require federal employees to present vaccine cards to their superiors. Biden’s plan will instead rely on one of the most universal tools of the federal bureaucracy: paperwork.
Federal workers will be asked to sign an attestation—effectively an affidavit—declaring that they have been fully vaccinated before returning to work. Knowingly lying on an attestation would be a violation of federal law, with those convicted facing up to five years in prison and a potential ban on ever serving in government again.
“It’s not an honor system,” the White House official told The Daily Beast. “You have to sign an attestation form, and lying to the federal government, it’s like perjury.”
Any federal employee who does not sign the attestation will be required to wear a mask while at their workplace, be tested for COVID-19 at least once per week, socially distance from their colleagues, and will largely be forbidden from traveling for work.
While the use of attestations to prove vaccination status is novel, the mechanisms to ensure compliance are as old as the federal government itself, according to an official with the Office of Management and Budget, which is coordinating the effort along with the the Office of Personnel Management and the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force.
“Employees attesting on a form to the truthfulness of the information they provide is a strong approach to keeping employees safe, and it’s a common Human Resources practice in the federal government and other businesses,” the official said. “For example: when undergoing a background check and filling out financial disclosure reports. Making a false statement in this manner can result in loss of a person’s position, and it’s a federal crime to provide false information to the government in this manner.”
Public health experts are generally pleased with the plan, which bypasses the use of vaccination cards, which are ridiculously easy to forge, and dodges the poor optics of creating a vaccine passport, which the White House has long pledged is not on the table.
“Let’s be honest: nobody’s going to comply with the mask guidance, but they will comply with a mandate by a business, university or government. That’s a proven method that works,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “If you make it harder to participate in the workplace or in classrooms, then most people would rather get the jab.”
The plan is a major change from the government’s previous approach to vaccination that left the question of proving one’s vaccination status up to the honor system, but will take time to implement across the vast federal bureaucracy, the White House official said, which is why Biden did not announce a deadline for vaccinations.
“Each workplace is going to look different because the federal government is very diverse in terms of what its workplaces look like,” the White House official said. “Some places will be able to do this quicker than others, some places are gonna look different than others.”
True to Biden’s centralized, “whole-of-government” approach to the vaccination campaign, representatives for the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Energy, Transportation, Treasury, Labor, Agriculture, Education and Interior all referred The Daily Beast to OMB and the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, the somewhat awkwardly named working group created to coordinate efforts by federal agencies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, for details of their implementation.
But one cabinet department is still waiting for the official go-ahead: the Department of Defense, the nation’s largest cabinet department by number of employees, only one-third of which are currently covered by Biden’s attestation plan. Active duty servicemembers cannot be required to obtain a vaccination that hasn’t yet been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and the White House has maintained that Biden will not waive that rule without close coordination with the Pentagon.
“The president’s looking for a recommendation from the secretary of defense—that hasn’t been made yet” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday. “If and when that is made, I would expect he would respond accordingly.”
In his remarks last week, Biden said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was “open to it,” when asked if they might mandate the vaccine before the process was complete.
But, he said, “[T]he question is when is the right time to get the most bang for the buck when you do it. A lot of this is timing.”
For the nearly 1.4 million active duty service members in the military—roughly 64 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Pentagon—the uncertainty of when COVID-19 vaccination will join more than a dozen other required inoculations for sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines is now a matter of national security. Unvaccinated troops could be put at risk if deployed to an area with high rates of infection, and may even be barred from entering countries with U.S. military bases but restrictions against unvaccinated visitors.
“We’re hoping to have an update sooner than later,” said Army Major Charlie Dietz, a public affairs officer at the Pentagon, who said that the matter of requiring service members to be vaccinated is currently being discussed with public health officials. “They’re gathering the chiefs of each service and trying to figure out the best way forward along with the medical specialists, but at this time, honestly, we have no idea when or even if that’s going to happen.”
Despite the bureaucratic hurdles unique to the federal government—Walmart, for example, doesn’t require a presidential waiver in order to require vaccinations for greeters—the White House hopes that the attestation plan could create a model for private businesses and localities to mandate vaccination for employees.
So far, the plan has been embraced by business organizations and trade groups as critical to helping the nation return to normalcy. Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the protocols “prudent steps to protect public health and our economic recovery,” and the Small Business Roundtable released a statement declaring that the plan “will help build a framework for small businesses… to reopen safely.”
“We need to be a blueprint for what’s feasible and realistic,” the White House official said. “It’s important for us to build a blueprint that fits accordingly.”
Biden himself has encouraged private industry to follow in the federal government’s steps, remarking on Tuesday that if private and public sector leaders institute vaccine mandates, “I will have their backs.”
“Many are following the federal government’s lead,” Biden said. “The private sector is stepping up as well—even Fox has vaccination requirements!”