US President Joe Biden on Thursday said all federal employees must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or else submit to rigorous testing, and called on local governments to offer $100 payments to those getting immunised in a bid to boost flagging vaccination rates.
“You want to know how to put this virus behind us? I'll tell you how,” Mr Biden said from the White House. “We need to get more people vaccinated.”
More than four million federal employees and contractors will need to show proof of vaccination or else be prepared to wear face masks, physically distance and be tested for the virus weekly.
Mr Biden directed the Department of Defence to formulate a plan to add the Covid-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for members of the military in the US and abroad.
The move makes the US government the largest employer in the country to enact such a requirement.
It follows similar moves by the US Department of Veteran Affairs, state governments from California to New York, healthcare departments nationwide and large companies like Facebook, Netflix and Google.
“If you are unvaccinated, you present a problem to yourself, to your family and to those with whom you work,” Mr Biden said.
The US still has a large unvaccinated population and is ranked as one of the most vaccine-resistant countries in the world.
At least 57 per cent of the vaccine-eligible population over the age of 12 has been fully vaccinated; this represents only 49 per cent of the entire US population.
The US in recent weeks has seen a rise in new coronavirus infections and hospital admissions due to the highly transmissible Delta variant, with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recording a seven-day average of more than 66,000 new cases daily.
While the number of cases is much lower than the figures seen during the winter surge, they are close to those observed in the summer of 2020.
A majority of infections and hospital admissions are among the unvaccinated population.
“It's an American tragedy. People are dying and will die who don't have to die,” Mr Biden said. “Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love dying.”
Mr Biden called on state and local governments to use emergency coronavirus federal funds to give $100 to those willing to be fully vaccinated.
The president announced the government will reimburse employers if they give paid time off to workers taking family members to be vaccinated during work hours.
He said it is unacceptable that some people are still not being granted paid leave to be vaccinated.
Mr Biden also asked school districts to organise pop-up vaccination events for middle school and high school vaccine-eligible adolescents before the new school year, saying every school should be open after a year of remote and hybrid education.
“Parents, get your children vaccinated,” he said.
The CDC on Tuesday issued updated guidance that fully vaccinated people should wear a face mask in public indoor spaces if they are in regions with a high level of contagion.
The health agency on Wednesday said about 67 per cent of US counties have high or substantial Covid-19 transmission.
“A mask is not a political statement. It's about protecting yourself and protecting others,” Mr Biden said of the new guidelines.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky cited research that said vaccinated people who have contracted the Delta variant may be contagious, compelling her to make the recommendation despite the number of breakthrough cases remaining low.
“Masking is one defence against the spread of Covid-19. Make no mistake: vaccines are the best defence,” the president continued.
Cities like Los Angeles, St Louis and the US capital of Washington have brought back indoor mask mandates regardless of vaccination status.
Johns Hopkins University data show that more than 611,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the US, the highest recorded official death tally globally.