WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden announced sweeping new coronavirus vaccine mandates Thursday designed to affect tens of millions of Americans, ordering all businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be immunized or face weekly testing.

Biden also said that he would require most health-care facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to vaccinate their employees, which the White House believes will cover 50,000 locations.

And the president signed an executive order compelling all federal employees to get vaccinated – without an option for those who prefer to be regularly tested instead – in an effort to create a model he hopes state governments will embrace. He is also ordering all staffers in Head Start programs, along with Defense Department and federally operated schools for Native Americans, to be vaccinated.

“We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” Biden said in an address from the White House. He added, “What makes it incredibly more frustrating is we have the tools to combat covid-19, and a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner.”

Taken together, the moves represent a major escalation by Biden of the pressure against those who have resisted vaccination. The announcement comes amid growing signs that the highly contagious delta variant, and the persistence of vaccine resistance, are combining to drag out the pandemic, slow the economic recovery and prevent Biden from turning his focus to other matters.

Biden adopted a newly antagonistic tone toward the unvaccinated Thursday, underlining his shift from cajoling to coercion as he placed blame on those still refusing to get shots for harming other Americans. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Biden said. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”

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The delta variant has upended calculations on the virus, sending new infections surging to more than 150,000 a day and daily deaths to 1,500. At the same time, Biden’s approval rating has fallen in recent weeks, with Americans less supportive of his handling of the pandemic. Defeating the pandemic was among his central promises, and White House aides believe that his ability to deliver on it will be critical to the success of his presidency.

Biden’s announcement thrusts his administration into new territory, and it’s not entirely clear how the new rules – which still have to be written – will work. The most far-reaching is likely to be a regulation requiring all businesses with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccinations for all their workers or require them to take weekly coronavirus tests.

The White House estimates that the policy will affect about 80 million workers, or two-thirds of the country’s workforce. Businesses that ignore the mandate could face up to $14,000 per violation.

The Labor Department has the authority to order companies to take specific actions to protect their workers if the secretary determines they face a grave danger, said an official who briefed reporters before the president’s speech.

But critics such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signaled court challenges even before Biden had finished speaking. “I will pursue every legal option available to the state of Georgia to stop this blatantly unlawful overreach by the Biden administration,” Kemp tweeted.

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Businesses also will be required to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated.

Some business leaders offered initial support for Biden’s plan. Joshua Bolten, president of the Business Roundtable, said the group “welcomes the Biden administration’s fight against covid,” adding that “America’s business leaders know how critical vaccination and testing are in defeating the pandemic.”

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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Many in the administration, and elsewhere, have been taken aback at the extent to which the coronavirus vaccines have become a heated cultural issue rather than solely a public health measure, with right-leaning media hosts, Republican governors and many rank-and-file conservatives casting Biden’s vaccine drive as a violation of their personal freedom.

The president voiced exasperation with that attitude Thursday. “These ‘pandemic politics,’ as I refer to it, are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die,” Biden said. “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting a large majority of Americans who have done their part.”

How the new mandates will fare in such a polarized environment is unclear. Just half of Americans in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll supported the idea of businesses requiring employees to be vaccinated, and the split was highly partisan. Roughly 8 in 10 Democrats supported such mandates, while more than 6 in 10 Republicans opposed them.

About three-quarters of U.S. workers have received at least one vaccine dose. But in a possible sign of what is to come, roughly 7 in 10 of those who are not vaccinated said they would probably quit if their employer required them to get a shot.

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Even so, administration officials predicted the new approach would make a big difference. “I’m very much in favor of making and encouraging mandates,” Anthony S. Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said in a brief interview after Biden’s speech. “This was not just superficial stuff. This is going to have a significant impact.”

Biden also called on states to enact vaccine mandates for school staffers, although he did not propose any penalty for states that do not heed his call. According to the White House, nine states, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, already mandate that staffers be vaccinated.

The American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, applauded the effort. “We stand in complete support of this plan and of the administration’s effort to protect as many people as possible,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Biden said he was making funds available to local schools facing financial retribution for implementing coronavirus protections.

“Right now local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic, while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs,” Biden said, in a veiled reference to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who has sought to withhold funds from school administrators who issue mask mandates. “Talk about bullying in schools.”

The new vaccine requirement for federal workers will apply not just to roughly 2.1 million government employees but also to the millions of contractors that do business with the government. In August, the Defense Department announced it was making coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for military personnel.

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking before Biden’s remarks Thursday, said federal workers will have roughly 75 days to get fully vaccinated. If employees do not comply, she said, they will undergo the standard disciplinary process for federal workers.

There will be exemptions from the mandate for people with disabilities or those who decline for religious reasons. “We would like to be a model to what we think other businesses and organizations should do around the country,” Psaki said.

The largest union representing federal workers quickly pushed back against the new policy, or at least the specifics of its implementation.

“Changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate,” said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions.”

Biden also said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to spur the manufacture of additional rapid coronavirus tests, adding that the administration had struck a deal with Kroger, Walmart and Amazon to sell those tests at cost. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Even with the new policies, Biden is not using all of the tools available to him, public health experts said. For instance, the new rules stop short of mandating vaccinations for anyone traveling between states on planes or trains, a step that Biden could take, said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law School.

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Still, Gostin praised Biden’s approach, saying that the president has “done more than any other president has for a vaccination campaign and mandates in the history of America – so we have to give him credit for that.”

Another step that Biden has avoided is setting up a federal verification system for people to prove they are vaccinated. This has confounded many public health experts.

“These measures have the potential to have a big impact on where we are,” said Richard Besser, president and chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But he added, “There’s nothing in there about how you verify vaccination. . . . If you’re moving towards mandates, having something that is truly secure and trusted could be very helpful.”

Until now, Biden had used mandates only in limited circumstances, hoping instead that state and local governments, along with private companies, would follow suit when the government instituted particular vaccine policies.

He has seen some limited success. The Los Angeles Unified School District board on Thursday voted to mandate vaccinations for those 12 and up to be able to attend school.

Several large businesses, including Walmart, McDonald’s and Delta Air Lines, issued vaccine mandates of their own shortly after Biden announced in late July that federal workers had to get immunized or be tested twice a week (Thursday’s announcement eliminated the testing option.)

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At the same time, some Republicans governors, such as DeSantis and Texas’s Greg Abbott, have loudly defied calls for mandates.

But as the delta variant has surged, the political landscape has appeared to shift – vaccinations started ticking back up after stagnating for several weeks, with many hesitant Americans driven by fear of the delta variant’s lethality or compelled to get shots because of workplace mandates.

The Food and Drug Administration also granted the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine full approval recently, moving beyond the initial emergency authorization and making it easier for the government and businesses to impose mandates. The agency is expected to grant full approval to vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson in the coming months.