By Jeff Mason, David Shepardson, and Ahmed Aboulenein
WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President Joe Biden will require all federal employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the U.S. Department of Labor will issue a rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to have their workers vaccinated or tested weekly, officials said on Thursday.
The new measures, which Biden is due to lay out in remarks at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT), cover about two thirds of all U.S. employees, part of a broader, more aggressive attempt to get Americans vaccinated amid a surge in COVID-19 cases from the fast-spreading Delta variant.
Under Biden's plan, the administration would also require vaccinations for more than 17 million health care workers at hospitals and other institutions that participate in Medicare and Medicaid social programs for poor, disabled, and older Americans, senior administration officials said.
The new vaccination requirements cover about 100 million workers, or about two thirds of all workers in the United States, officials said. In addition, the administration plans to ramp up testing capacity for the virus.
Biden will use his authority under the Defense Production Act to spur industry to accelerate production of the tests, and big retailers including Walmart, Amazon.com, and Kroger will sell the tests at cost for the next three months to make them more affordable, the officials said.
The full recovery of the U.S economy depends on blunting the spread of the virus, which is a key health and political goal of the president, a Democrat who took entered the White House in January.
"Our overarching objective here is to reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, noting that 80 million still have not been vaccinated. "We want to reduce that number, decrease hospitalizations and deaths and allow our children to go to school safely."
Federal workers unions suggested on Thursday they would accept the vaccine mandate.
Federal workers will have a 75-day "ramp up" period to get vaccinated and then be referred to human resources for counseling and possible disciplinary action, Psaki said. Workers who are not exempt from vaccination and refuse to get a vaccine may be terminated.
Despite a full-throttled campaign by the Biden administration urging all eligible Americans to get the free vaccines, just over 53% of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to date from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The disease has killed more than 654,000 people in the United States, and deaths and hospitalizations have been rising sharply as the easily transmissible Delta variant of the virus spreads.
In July, Biden said federal workers had to get vaccinated or face regular COVID-19 testing and other restrictions like mandatory face covering at workplaces.
Biden's speech also will cover mask-wearing, protecting the economic recovery from the pandemic-induced recession, and improving healthcare for people infected with COVID-19, Psaki said.
"He's going to speak directly to vaccinated people and their frustration, and he wants them to hear how we're going to build on what we've done to date to get the virus under control and to return to some version of normal in this country," she said.
The White House COVID recovery plans and the projected U.S. economic rebound were based on the vast majority of eligible Americans' being vaccinated this year. But the public health issue has become politicized, with a vocal minority refusing the shots and mask mandates, arguing that they are an infringement on their individual rights.
COUNTRY ‘STILL IN PANDEMIC MODE'
The spread of the Delta variant has raised concerns as children head back to school, while also rattling investors, upending company return-to-office plans and tamping down hiring.
With 160,000 new infections a day, the country is "still in pandemic mode. … That's not even modestly good control," Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Axios.
"You've got to get well below 10,000 (a day) before you start feeling comfortable," Fauci added.
The White House plans to offer booster shots providing additional protection to those who are fully vaccinated. That goes against arguments from the World Health Organization and other advocates that say with global vaccine supplies limited, rich countries should pause booster programs until more people worldwide are inoculated.
But with Delta causing more symptomatic breakthrough infections among fully inoculated individuals, most vaccinated Americans want a booster, a recent Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll found.
Abbott Laboratories and other test manufacturers are trying to boost production as cases soar, after having scaled back in recent months. CVS Health Corp recently imposed limits on the number of at-home tests customers can buy.
The White House said the federal government cannot mandate vaccines nationwide, but it has encouraged school districts, businesses, and other entities to require shots.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Ahmed Aboulenein, David Shepardson, and Trevor Hunnicutt. Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey. Writing by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason. Editing by Heather Timmons, Bill Berkrot, and Howard Goller.)