Keep schools open, mandate vaccines for all federal employees, and increase testing—these are three of the goals President Joe Biden outlined today during a briefing on America's ongoing battle against COVID-19.
The plan was delivered during a fourth surge of virus activity fueled by the highly contagious Delta (B1617.2) variant and a stagnant national vaccination campaign that's stalled at 53% of the US population vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
"What more do you need to see?" Biden asked the 80 million Americans who are still unvaccinated. "The vaccine is FDA-approved, over 200 million Americans have gotten the shot. We have been patient, but our patience is wearing thin."
Just 4 months ago, Biden, with the guidance from Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said fully vaccinated Americans no longer had to wear masks, and promised a July 4th that would mark the country's freedom from the virus.
But, despite adequate supply, no cost to recipients, and several state-based incentives, vaccine uptake in the United States was not swift or comprehensive enough to block infections from the Delta variant this summer.
Vaccine mandates for businesses, fed workers
To combat the rising cases, Biden is directing the Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccines or weekly COVID-19 testing. And he said the federal government is a model for businesses in deploying vaccine mandates.
All federal government workers and contractors will be required to be vaccinated, as will 17 million healthcare workers in hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding. In total, Biden's announcement affects more than two thirds of the US labor force.
The Labor Department will also ensure all vaccine recipients to receive paid time off for vaccination.
In addition to vaccines, Biden announced new initiatives to increase at-home COVID-19 testing. Tests will be sold at-cost for the next 3 months at major retailers. He also said the availably of monoclonal antibodies will increase by 50%, and federal travel regulations on mask wearing will now be able to double the fines on travelers who are not adhering to mandates.
"We have the tools to combat the virus, if we come together as a nation and use those tools. We can and we will turn the tide on COVID-19," Biden said.
The CDC COVID Data Tracker shows 53.3% of Americans are fully vaccinated, and 62.7% have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Roughly 75% of US adults have had at least one dose.
LA County school district mandates vaccines
Los Angeles County, home to 600,000 students, has become the first major school district to mandate vaccines for all students 12 or older without medical exemptions. Officials said students have until Dec 19 to be vaccinated completely. Students who will turn 12 this year have 30 days after their birthday to initiate vaccination.
According to the LA County Department of Public Health, 60.8% of residents aged 12 to 15 in Los Angeles County have received at least one dose of vaccine as of last week. The school district has already mandated vaccination for employees, who need to be vaccinated by Oct 15.
Children have been more heavily affected by the Delta wave than during previous surges of the pandemic, largely because they remain unvaccinated.
COVID-19 hospitalizations for those 17 and under peaked in late August at a rate approaching twice that of this year's early winter surge, according to a CNN analysis of CDC data. An average of 53 children a day were hospitalized with COVID-19 from Aug 31 to Sep 6.
The United States reported 176,710 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, and 2,146 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. The 7-day average of new daily cases is 149,330, with 1,524 daily deaths, according to the Washington Post tracker.
Other US developments
- A Florida judge ruled yesterday that schools in the state can start legally requiring masks, Bloomberg reports. Gov. Ron DeSantis has been appealing a decision by the same judge that overruled his ban on mask mandates, and yesterday's ruling lifted the stay on that decision.
- United Airlines employees who receive religious or medical exemptions from the company's COVID-19 vaccination requirement will be required to take temporary leaves of absence starting next month, according to the Washington Post.
- The US testing system is once again struggling to keep pace with surging infections, Politico reported yesterday. While testing labs have capacity, the closure of mass testing sites across the country has resulted in many people waiting longer or traveling farther to get a test.