The decision by the White House, in the works for several days and announced by Biden late on Thursday afternoon, comes as the Delta variant fuels another wave of infections and, among the unvaccinated, rising hospitalizations and deaths. The severity of the variant was underscored later Thursday with reports of an internal document from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlining unpublished data that shows fully vaccinated people might spread the Delta variant at the same rate as unvaccinated people. Already, the surge has unwound much of the progress of the spring and early summer and stoked anger among a vaccinated majority desperate for a return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.
Tapping into that vein of frustration in his speech, Biden encouraged state and local officials to dangle a new carrot, in the form of $100 payments, to the newly vaccinated, but mostly emphasized the large stick he wields as the head of government — a departure from the softer touch he’s favored during most of his presidency. Biden acknowledged that the inducement might rankle Americans who sought out the vaccines without monetary reward, but his argument in its favor drove at something more elemental — a belief, undermined by decades of Republican arguments to the contrary, that government has both the capability and obligation to advance the public good.
“If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them,” Biden said. “We all benefit if we can get more people vaccinated.”
Biden also praised private businesses and institutions, like the National Football League, that are imposing strict new measures and, in some cases, mandates that their employees get vaccinated, or face being effectively locked out of their jobs or made to look for new ones.
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients spoke in stark terms about what vaccine holdouts working in government faced, describing “a difficult system of regular testing, masking, social distancing” and a ban on travel for work.
“We believe that people will do the right thing,” Zients said. “Protect themselves, protect their loved ones, protect their community, and get vaccinated.”
But the Biden administration’s shift and a recent tightening of masking protocols on Capitol Hill are already being met with stiff resistance from the usual suspects — a signal that many Republicans’ desire to politicize even the anodyne efforts to beat back the virus will provoke a cartoonish backlash.
GOP leaders at the federal and state level have most recently lashed out at public health experts’ calls for a return to more robust mitigation tactics, like wearing masks in potentially dangerous settings. In Washington, House Republicans on Thursday staged a protest against the attending physician’s reinstatement of a mask mandate in the lower chamber by walking over to the Senate side of the US Capitol, where facial coverings are not required. Later on, a member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus railed against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, describing her as “authoritarian.”
“Her tyranny, quite frankly, knows no bounds,” huffed Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, who then took aim at the new rules Biden was poised to roll out. “This will filter out and that will basically obfuscate and abrogate our rights as Americans. We’re going to fight this. We’ll fight it as the Freedom Caucus, and we will fight this as Americans.”
A shift in momentum?
After a bumper few months that took the country to the brink of Biden’s goal of having 70% of American adults receiving at least one shot by July 4, the vaccine effort has in the President’s estimation hit “a brick wall,” according to people familiar with his thinking. The pace has picked up over the last few days, as reports of overwhelmed hospitals and skyrocketing case rates dominated the news, and warnings about the Delta variant’s transmissibility may have moved hesitant Americans to action.
But anxieties about the relative vaccination standstill are likely amplified by the details contained in an internal report presented to the CDC — and first revealed late Thursday night by the Washington Post and later confirmed by CNN — that suggested the variant is far more transmissible than older lineages, may cause more severe disease, and that when it causes breakthrough infections, may be as easily transmitted as when it infects unvaccinated people.
The document appears to provide some data backing CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s controversial decision on Tuesday to change the agency’s guidance on mask use.
“I think people need to understand that we’re not crying wolf here. This is serious,” Walensky told CNN Thursday night, confirming that the slideshow was presented to her at a noon briefing earlier in the day. “The one thing I will say is I’ve been heartened in the past couple of days to see more people taking action in response to the fact that it’s bad — more organizations, businesses, states, localities taking the action that’s needed to get us out of this.”
Biden has stopped short of imposing even more stringent vaccine requirements, and Zients told Blitzer Thursday that a nationwide vaccine requirement is “not an authority that we’re exploring at all,” noting that the “Justice Department has said that it is legal for employers to require vaccinations.”
Shortly after Biden spoke, the Department of Defense announced that all military and civilian personnel would be asked to attest to their vaccination status or face new requirements “to wear a mask, physically distance, comply with a regular testing requirement and be subject to official travel restrictions.”
The department, which already has a list of required vaccinations for military personnel at home and overseas, stopped short of adding the Covid shots to the roster, but is considering it.
For the time being, the White House seems content to see whether its hardened position spurs a spike in vaccinations, while also hoping that it provides more space for the private sector to adopt tough new requirements.
“I think you’re going to find the patience of businesses, the patience of a lot of other people running thin,” Biden said, “because the fact is, if you had high vaccination rates, we wouldn’t be in this spot right now.”
A growing number of high-profile tech companies, health care providers and retail chains have already begun to insist their employees get vaccinated. Google, Facebook, Netflix, ride-share giants Uber and Lyft, along with Saks Fifth Avenue and others either conditioning employment on vaccination or coming right up to the line — in some cases, like with bankers Morgan Stanley, banning unvaccinated employees from setting foot in its headquarters.
The NFL recently jarred the sports world with the announcement that teams unable to play games because of Covid outbreaks caused by unvaccinated players or staff faced the potential of being made to forfeit games and game checks, a move that spurred a backlash from some players, but also — at least anecdotally — led some to relent and get inoculated.
Republicans’ mixed messages
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has consistently embraced the vaccine, is the narrator of a new, 60-second radio ad running in his state of Kentucky that, calling back on his own experience with polio, urges constituents to get vaccinated.
“Back then, it took decades for us to develop a vaccine,” McConnell says in the spot, describing the creation and distribution of the three available Covid-19 shots as “nothing short of a modern medical miracle.”
Biden on Thursday praised McConnell, noted that some Fox News hosts have begun to encourage viewers to get the shots, and shouted out another Republican, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, whose state has one of the lowest vaccination rates, for her more forceful tone. Last week, Ivey said the unvaccinated were “choosing a horrible lifestyle of self-inflicted pain.”
“Folks are supposed to have common sense,” she told reporters in Birmingham. “But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”
But plenty of high-profile Republicans — even those encouraging vaccines — have mocked the recent public health guidance.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an acolyte of former President Donald Trump and potential 2024 presidential contender, has been among the most ardent underminers of public health officials’ guidance and recommendations.
Speaking at a gathering in Utah this week, he scorned the CDC’s new guidance encouraging Americans in Covid hotspots to mask up when indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.
“Did you not get the CDC’s memo? I don’t see you guys complying,” he joked to a laughing, mostly unmasked crowd.
DeSantis, who peddles merchandise mocking Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on his campaign website, has made demonizing the leading public health official a staple of his budding stump speech.
“Floridians are free to choose, and all Americans should be free to choose, how they govern their affairs, how they take care of themselves and our families,” DeSantis said in Salt Lake City. “They should not be consigned to live, regardless of which state in the union, consigned to live in a Faucian dystopia.”
A day later, back in the realm of maddening reality, Biden sought to steel Americans for still more difficult days ahead.
“I know this is hard to hear. I know it’s frustrating. I know it’s exhausting to think we’re still in this fight. I know we hoped this would be a simple, straightforward line without problems or new challenges,” Biden said, “but that isn’t real life.”