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Biden toughens vaccination rules for federal gov’t

State officials urged to offer $100 as vaccine incentive

President Joe Biden holds up his face mask as he speaks about vaccine requirements for federal workers in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Thursday. The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday announced sweeping new pandemic requirements for millions of federal workers as he denounced an “American tragedy” of rising-yet-preventable deaths among unvaccinated U.S. employees and others.

Federal workers will be required to attest they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else face mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing and other new rules. The newly strict guidelines are aimed at boosting sluggish vaccination rates among the four million of Americans who draw federal paychecks and to set an example for private employers around the country.

“Right now, too many people are dying or watching someone they love die and say if ‘I’d just got the vaccine,'” Biden said in a somber address from the East Room of the White House. “This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die.”

Biden also urged state and local governments to use funds provided by the coronavirus relief package to incentivize vaccinations by offering $100 to individuals who get the shots.

Biden also announced that small- and medium-sized businesses will receive reimbursements if they offer employees time off to get family members vaccinated.

The administration en­­couraged businesses to follow its lead on incentivizing vaccinations by imposing burdens on the unvaccinated. Rather than mandating that federal workers receive vaccines, the plan will make life more difficult for those who are unvaccinated to encourage them to comply.

Biden also directed the Defense Department to look into adding the COVID-19 shot to its list of required vaccinations for members of the military. And he has directed his team to take steps to apply similar requirements to all federal contractors.

Over and over, the president repeated that the vast majority of those falling ill and dying in this new wave of the delta virus are unvaccinated, putting others at risk and endangering the nation’s fragile economic recovery and return to normalcy.

“It’s an American blessing that we have vaccines for each and every American. It’s such a shame to squander that blessing,” said Biden.

Biden praised the recent increase in Republican lawmakers urging those not vaccinated — many of whom, polling suggests, identify as conservatives — to get their shots.

“This is not about red states and blue states,” he said. “It’s literally about life and death, life and death.”

Children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine, though Biden repeated his demand that schools fully open this fall. He also said that public health officials do not yet believe Americans need a booster vaccine despite the highly contagious delta variant fueling the surge.

Biden’s move for the federal government — by far the nation’s largest employer — and federal contractors comes in the face of surging coronavirus rates driven by pockets of vaccine resistance and the more infectious delta variant. A number of major corporations and some local governments are ordering new requirements on their own, but the administration feels much more is needed.

However, pushback is certain. The action puts Biden squarely in the center of a fierce political debate surrounding the government’s ability to compel Americans to follow public health guidelines.

The government directly employs about 4 million people, but Biden’s action could affect many more when federal contractors are factored in.

New York University professor of public service Paul Light estimates there are nearly 7 million more employees who could potentially be affected, combining those who work for companies that contract with the government and those working under federal grants.

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