WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Wednesday sought to jump-start suddenly slowing vaccinations of Americans against covid-19, pressing businesses and nonprofits to give employees paid time off for the shots and touting government funding to underwrite some of the costs of that time.
The initiative, designed to encourage millions of unvaccinated people to get immunized, sends one of the strongest signals yet that vaccine demand is emerging as a bigger challenge than supply. It marks a shift from months of long waiting lists and limited opportunities for Americans to get vaccinated. Biden announced Wednesday that the United States will hit 200 million vaccination shots by Thursday, a target he had set out to meet by the end of April.
“I’m calling on every employer large and small in every state to give employees the time off they need, with pay, to get vaccinated,” Biden said. “No working American should lose a single dollar from their paycheck because they chose to fulfill their patriotic duty of getting vaccinated.”
Repeatedly declaring the country had entered a “new phase” in which all Americans ages 16 and older can get vaccinated, Biden warned that “the broad swath of American adults still remain largely unvaccinated,” and lamented that “too many younger Americans may still think they don’t need to get vaccinated.”
“To put it simply, if you’re waiting for your turn, wait no longer,” he said.
Biden’s pitch comes amid both hopeful and concerning signs in the nationwide effort to vaccinate people as quickly as possible. After weeks of accelerating daily inoculations, the average daily number of reported shots in arms slowed significantly over the past week, with an 11 percent drop in daily shots administered nationally, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 40% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. At the same time, most Americans who haven’t been immunized say they’re unlikely to get the shots, a recent poll showed. Meanwhile, a pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine has complicated efforts to swiftly administer shots.
In an afternoon speech at the White House, Biden called on all companies to provide employees with paid time off to get shots and to rest if they feel unwell afterward.
The president highlighted a tax credit in his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief law, which will reimburse businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees for up to $511 per day of paid vaccination leave offered between April 1 and Sept. 30, to a maximum of 10 work days.
“Every employee should get paid leave to get a shot, and businesses should know that they can provide it without a hit to their bottom line,” Biden said. “There’s no excuse for not getting it done.”
At least 133 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the United States, according to Washington Post data. More than 86 million people are fully vaccinated, the data show. By Thursday, Biden said, 80% of American seniors will have had at least one shot.
But many Americans are still reluctant to get vaccinated. Polling shows opposition to the vaccine is much more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats.
The new tax credit is part of the government’s quest to buttress efforts in the private sector aimed at encouraging vaccination. Large employers from American Airlines to Target have unveiled incentives for employees to get vaccinated, from an extra day off next year to free rides to vaccination sites.
The success of those initiatives could help determine how businesses approach requiring the vaccine for their employees – a vexed political debate that the administration has sought to leave to the private sector.
Short of mandates, however, Biden administration officials said they had examined research showing employers have outsize influence in reaching the remaining unvaccinated population. The tax credit, they said, would provide the financial support necessary to allow small businesses to make vaccination convenient for their employees.
The approach is wise, experts said, because some of the workers most at risk of coronavirus exposure may be reluctant to get vaccinated if it means sacrificing limited time off.
“I think it’s a very smart move,” said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. An even more immediate way to support small businesses in guaranteeing paid time off, she said, would be to provide direct payments to employers who show that they’re providing this benefit.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, welcomed the announcement, saying it was vital for government to help remove various “social determinants” blocking access to vaccination, from work to transportation to child care.
As Biden approaches his 100th day in office, he is eager to highlight the progress he has made in combating the pandemic. The president has made fighting the coronavirus the dominant focus of the early part of his presidency. He campaigned aggressively on the issue last year and signed the sweeping covid-19 relief bill into law earlier this year.
Biden pledged in a news conference in late March that the U.S. would administer 200 million coronavirus vaccine shots by the end of April – doubling a prior goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. On Wednesday, he called hitting that milestone ahead of that deadline an “incredible achievement for the nation.”
The president delivered his Wednesday address just days after residents 16 and older became eligible for vaccination, a dynamic Biden promoted this week in a video.
“We have enough of it, you need to be protected, and you need in turn to protect your neighbors and your family. So please, get the vaccine,” Biden says in the video.
Biden said Wednesday he hoped the U.S. could help provide other countries with vaccines to address the pandemic, but that domestic supply had not yet reached a high enough level to do that in earnest.
“We don’t have enough to be confident to give it send it abroad now. But I expect we’re going to be able to do that,” he said.