SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Joe Biden
President Joe Biden on Thursday called the current uptick of COVID-19 cases "an American tragedy," calling on Americans to get vaccinated and announcing that the country's four million federal employees must get their shots or be forced to submit to regular testing and adhere to strict protocols such as wearing a mask and socially-distancing.
Biden, 78, added that he would be directing companies that contract with the government to take similar steps. "If you want to do business with the federal government, get your workers vaccinated," the president said in remarks delivered Thursday.
Under the new rules, the nation's federal employees will be required to attest to their vaccination status. If unvaccinated (or if they choose not to attest to their status), they will be required to wear a mask — even if they live in a region without high or subsequent substantial spread — socially distance, and be regularly tested for the virus either weekly or twice weekly. Those who are not vaccinated will also be subject to restrictions on most travel.
Saying the country "needs some straight talk," the president said that after months of cases going down, America is now seeing a spike in cases.
Why? The highly contagious Delta variant, which is currently sweeping across the country (particularly in areas where vaccination rates are low).
"It's highly transmissible and it's causing a new wave of cases in those who are not vaccinated," Biden said.
Biden continued: "This is an American tragedy ... If you're out there and unvaccinated: You don't have to die."
Acknowledging the partisan divide in vaccinations, Biden said, "This is not about red states or blue states. It's about life and death."
Tune in as I deliver remarks on the next steps in our effort to get more Americans vaccinated and combat the spread of the Delta variant. https://t.co/WwFw2nT72p
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 29, 2021
Biden also announced Thursday that he is directing the Department of Defense to look into how and when they will add COVID vaccinations to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military. "This is particularly important because our troops serve in places throughout the world—many where vaccination rates are low and disease is prevalent," the White House said in a statement.
Under the federal plan, only those who work directly with patients at Veterans Affairs-run hospitals will be required to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment. The administration has been quick to note that other federal employees who are not vaccinated will not be in danger of being fired due to the new rules (though they will have to adhere to strict safety measures).
Biden also announced the federal government would now be reimbursing any employers who give workers paid time off to get they and their family members get vaccinated.
Biden alluded to the measures earlier in the week, telling reporters that vaccines were one of the best ways to halt the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, which is currently sweeping parts of the country with a high number of unvaccinated people.
"More vaccinations and mask wearing in the areas most impacted by the Delta variant will enable us to avoid the kind of lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures, and disruptions we faced in 2020," Biden said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a similar announcement on Wednesday, saying state employees must either get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID tests.
The federal announcement comes as the administration has been working hard to convince Americans to get their vaccines.
Speaking to a crowd at a Hawaiian vaccination clinic earlier this week, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden said COVID has become "more contagious than ever" due to new variants, and that this latest push to get people vaccinated "seems the hardest of all."
According to the CDC, more than 97% of those currently hospitalized for severe COVID-19 infections are unvaccinated. The current average of approximately 26,000 new cases per day is up 70% from the previous week, according to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who spoke in a recent press briefing. Hospitalizations are also up (36%), while COVID-19 deaths are up 26%.
While cases of the virus had gone down steeply as vaccines were rolled out around the world, they've shot up in recent weeks, with the CDC and the president now warning of a "pandemic of the unvaccinated."
Multiple large-scale studies have found that vaccines are safe. There is no scientific link between vaccines and autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control.