US President Joe Biden on Thursday outlined a new plan to try to control the Covid-19 pandemic, which is raging across the country despite the widespread availability of vaccinations.
“We can and we will turn the tide on Covid-19,” he said in remarks from the White House. “It will take a lot of hard work. It's going to take some time.”
He unveiled a requirement for all federal employees and government contractors to be vaccinated, as well as workers at hospitals or in healthcare settings that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.
The US Department of Labour is developing a plan that will require all US businesses with 100 or more employees to require all workers to be vaccinated or else submit to frequent Covid-19 testing.
Mr Biden signed the executive order requiring the vaccinations for federal workers, marking a significant hardening of the administration’s position on vaccine mandates amid the Delta variant surge that is overwhelming hospitals in parts of the US, particularly in southern states with low vaccination rates.
In all, the requirements could affect 100 million vaccine-eligible people in the US, he said.
“We have the tools,” Mr Biden said. “Now we just have to finish the job with truth, with science, with confidence. And together, as one nation.”
Before Mr Biden's speech, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday said federal workers and contractors would have 75 days to become fully vaccinated. Workers who do not comply will be referred to their agencies’ human resources departments for counselling and discipline, which could include potential termination.
The president also discussed mask-wearing rules during travel and on federal property, accessible Covid testing, protecting economic recovery for businesses with low-cost loans and improving health care for people infected with the disease.
“Show some respect,” the US president said of increased violence against flight attendants over the federal mask rule. He said fines will now double if passengers do not comply.
Mr Biden announced that Amazon, Kroger and Walmart will sell at-home Covid-19 tests at-cost for the next three months, effectively making them 35 per cent cheaper than what they currently cost.
“We know that increasing vaccinations will stop the spread of the pandemic, will get the pandemic under control, will return people to normal life,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday.
“We have more work to do and we are still at war with the virus.”
Mr Biden said that the school year will continue in-person this autumn, and that his administration will support school districts in enforcing safe reopening in states like Florida that refuse to enact virus mitigation measures.
He announced a vaccination requirement for staff in federal education programmes and school systems in the US, affecting close to 300,000 faculty that educate about one million children.
Mr Biden called on US states to require vaccinations for all school employees and parents to have their children aged 12 and over vaccinated.
The US president will also require employers to provide paid time off so that staffers can be vaccinated and asked large venues to require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test result for entry.
Increasing infections have raised concerns as children head back to school, while also rattling investors and upending company return-to-office plans.
With 160,000 new infections a day, the country is “still in pandemic mode … That's not even modestly good control,” Mr Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, told Axios.
“You've got to get well below 10,000 before you start feeling comfortable.”
More than 100,000 hospital beds are occupied by those suffering Covid-19 symptoms, the US Department of Health and Human Services said.
“We're in the tough stretch and it could last for a while,” Mr Biden said.
The White House said there will be additional medical crisis teams and assistance from the Department of Defence and the Federal Emergency Management Agency available for hospitals struggling under Covid surges.
The US government will also send out more monoclonal antibody treatments to areas to address a rise in cases.
A little over 53 per cent of Americans have been fully vaccinated, including almost two thirds of the adult population, data from the CDC show.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Mr Biden said to unvaccinated people in the US.
“Your refusal has cost all of us.”
The disease has killed more than 653,000 people in the US, the highest death toll recorded for any country globally.
With many Americans still sceptical of the shots, the White House has already announced plans to give those who are fully vaccinated booster shots for additional protection.
The White House says the Biden administration is still gearing up for the roll-out of free booster vaccinations as early as September 20 — though that depends on steps taken by the US Food and Drug Administration and a vaccine panel at the CDC.
In doing so, they have rejected arguments from the World Health Organisation and other advocates that say rich countries should hold off on booster shots before more people worldwide have been inoculated.
“We need to continue fighting the virus overseas,” Mr Biden added. He said he will share further pandemic steps the US will take globally sometime this month.