Joe Biden, seeking to restore public confidence in his handling of the pandemic, was expected to order on Thursday that nearly all federal government workers must get vaccinated.
Reports of the requirement emerged ahead of a major speech by the president outlining a six-point plan to address the latest dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases and the stalling rate of vaccinations.
Biden seemed to be on course to effectively defeat the virus in early July, but has been accused of underestimating the highly contagious Delta variant and the intransigence of millions of unvaccinated Americans.
His remarks on Thursday are seen as a high-profile attempt to claw back momentum and offer reassurance to Americans feeling anxious about outbreaks in schools and despair about whether the pandemic will ever end.
Biden will sign two executive orders to require vaccination for employees of the executive branch, federal agencies and members of the armed services, a workforce of more than 4 million, according to multiple media reports.
The order will also apply to contractors who do business with the federal government. It was not clear if this includes exceptions for workers or contractors seeking religious or medical exemptions from vaccination.
The move represents a toughening of measures that Biden announced in late July, requiring federal workers to offer proof of vaccination or submit to regular testing and physical distancing measures in the workplace.
On Thursday the president is also expected to outline plans to increase testing in schools, offer further protection for the vaccinated and show that his administration is winning the battle against the pandemic, which he blamed for last month’s disappointing jobs report.
The fresh wave, combined with America’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan, threatens to inflict lasting political damage on Biden and derail his ambitious legislative agenda. His approval rating has dipped below 50% in opinion polls.
Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary, told the Politico website: “Fundamentally, for our public health, for our economic health and for the president’s political health, getting Covid right is the single most important issue that they face in the immediate term. We’re stepping into a different phase and the new administration has to meet the moment of that new phase. I think that begins in earnest with this speech.”
More than 208 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and 177 million are fully vaccinated, but confirmed cases of the virus have soared in recent weeks to an average of about 140,000 per day, with about 1,000 people dying from the virus daily, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most of the spread and the vast majority of severe illness and death is occurring among those not yet fully vaccinated against the virus, predominantly in areas that voted for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election. Many hospitals have been overwhelmed.
Mask mandates have become a toxic political issue, with the Republican governors of some states, such as Florida and Texas, seeking to ban them only to face dissent from some school districts and legal challenges. About 45 million children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Biden has previously encouraged vaccine requirements in settings such as schools, workplaces and university campuses, and the White House hopes the strengthened federal mandate will inspire more companies to follow suit.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services, the Indian Health Service and the National Institutes of Health have previously announced vaccine requirements for much of their staffs, and the Pentagon moved last month to require all service members to get vaccinated.
An AP-NORC poll in August found that 55% of Americans are in favour of requiring government workers to be fully vaccinated, compared with 21% opposed.
The Food and Drug Administration decision last month to grant full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to people 16 and above has reportedly encouraged Biden to take the step.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Wednesday: “We know that increasing vaccinations will stop the spread of the pandemic, will get the pandemic under control, will return people to normal life. That’s what our objective is, so we want to be specific about what we’re trying to achieve.”