Covid: Mandatory masks and testing for unvaccinated US government workers

President Joe Biden has called the current situation a 'pandemic of the unvaccinated'. Credit: AP

Millions of US government workers will be required to prove they have been vaccinated against coronavirus or else face mandatory mask wearing, weekly testing, social distancing and other new rules, the Biden administration has announced.

The newly strict guidelines are aimed at boosting sluggish vaccination rates among the four million Americans who work for the federal government 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’,” Joe Biden said in a sombre address from the White House.

“This is an American tragedy. People are dying who don’t have to die.”

The administration is encouraging businesses to follow its lead on incentivising 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.

Mr Biden also directed the Defence Department to look into adding the Covid-19 jab 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 government contractors.

Mr Biden also urged state and local governments to use funds provided by the coronavirus relief package to incentivise vaccinations by offering $100 (£71) to individuals who get the jabs.

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

Over and over, the president repeated that the vast majority of those falling ill and dying in this new wave of the Delta variant (the variant which first originated in India) 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 Mr Biden.

Mr Biden praised the recent increase in Republican legislators 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 Mr Biden repeated his demand that schools fully open this autumn.

He also said that public health officials do not yet believe Americans need a booster vaccine despite the highly contagious Delta variant fuelling a surge in cases.

Mr Biden’s move for the federal government – by far the nation’s largest employer – 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 Mr Biden squarely in the centre of a fierce political debate surrounding the government’s ability to compel Americans to follow public health guidelines.

The move could work because evidence this far shows workers would rather get the vaccine than deal with burdens they consider onerous at work, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University Law School.

“People would much rather roll up their sleeves and get a jab than undergo weekly testing and universal masking,” he said.

“In many ways, this is really not a mandate, it’s giving workers a choice.”

About 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated, compared to 71.4% in the UK.

Mr Biden had set a July 4 goal to get at least one shot in 70% of adults, and is still not quite there.

The latest figure is 69.3%.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the executive branch employed more than 2.7 million civilians in 2020, with some of the most significant numbers in Republican-led Southern states including Texas and Florida, where substantial vaccine resistance remains.

But Thursday’s move is not just about federal workers.

The administration hopes it will nudge private companies to push their workers harder to get vaccines that, while widely recognised as safe and effective, have yet to receive full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Some of the nation’s biggest corporations have moved to require vaccinations for their workers.

Tech giants Facebook and Google announced this week their employees would have to show proof they have been fully vaccinated before returning to work.

Delta and United airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are requiring workers to disclose their vaccination status though not requiring them to be vaccinated.

But fewer than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by the research firm Gartner.

The Biden administration hopes its federal worker guidance will help change that, by providing a model for state and local governments and private businesses to follow as workers prepare to return to offices this autumn.