More vaccine shots, more testing, more masking and more treatments: President Joe Biden is set to roll out his latest effort to combat the raging coronavirus pandemic with a public address on new initiatives Thursday.
“The overarching objective here is for the president to lay out the next steps to build on the steps we’ve taken since he took office,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday.
She noted that millions of Americans remain unvaccinated, even though they are eligible for the free shots. “We want to reduce that number, decrease hospitalizations and deaths and allow our children to go to school safely, and of course keep our economy strong,” Psaki said.
COVID-19 has killed more than 650,000 people in the United States. This month, the seven-day average number of deaths reached its highest level since March, with 1,500 people dying of the disease each day. After a strong dip at the start of this summer, Biden targeted July 4 as a celebration of “independence from the virus” with a large event at the White House.
Biden huddled with his top coronavirus advisers Wednesday afternoon in preparation for Thursday’s remarks—one of several recent in-person meetings about ways to get the country back on the road to recovery from the pandemic.
A senior administration official described the president’s latest push as an “aggressive, comprehensive, six-pronged plan.”
“It will ensure that we make more progress in our fight against the virus and save even more lives for months ahead, while also keeping schools open and protecting our economy from lockdowns’ damage,” the official told Newsweek and other media outlets in a preview of Biden’s address.
Here are the six areas of focus and what they will mean:
Vaccinating the Unvaccinated
COVID vaccines have been free and available to everyone 16 and older since April, and those 12 or older since May. But the Biden administration estimates that some 80 million Americans who are eligible have not gotten a single dose.
Biden has given multiple speeches in recent weeks to highlight vaccination efforts, often referring to the current health crisis as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
“We know that vaccines are the best line of defense against the virus, so we’ve worked tirelessly to get more Americans vaccinated,” the official said.
After resisting mandates early in his tenure, Biden will now unveil a new policy that requires all federal employees to attest to being vaccinated in the coming months or risk possible loss of their jobs. The administration also will require federal contractors to ensure their employees are vaccinated.
“It’s simple—if you want to work for the federal government, you must be vaccinated. If you want to do business with government, you must vaccinate your workforce,” the administration official said.
There will be limited exemptions for health or religious reasons.
Seventeen million health care workers will also be subject to vaccine requirements if their employer receives Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, which could apply to hospitals, ambulance services and clinics across the country.
Beyond federal employees, the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is developing a rule that will require all private sector businesses with at least 100 employees to have workers who are either fully vaccinated or can produce a negative coronavirus test once a week when coming to work. OSHA will also develop a rule that requires those employers to pay people for time off to get the shot.
Many private businesses, including Tyson Foods and United Airlines, already have announced vaccine mandates.
Biden is also calling on entertainment and sports venues to require proof of vaccination or a coronavirus test for entry.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 177 million people across the country have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and more than 75 percent of the adult population has at least one shot.
When more people first gained access to the vaccine in the spring, around 3 million shots were being administered each day. It’s fallen to under a million daily shots on average.
Furthering Protection for the Vaccinated
The nation’s top health officials, including the CDC director, have suggested that booster shots for those already vaccinated could help stop “breakthrough” cases and extend protection against COVID-19.
The senior official said that the Biden administration is working behind the scenes to develop a plan for informing the public about the shots and an effective distribution model for when people become eligible.
“We know doing the work now is essential,” the official said.
Keeping Schools Safely Open
The Biden administration estimates that about 90 percent of teachers and school staffers are already vaccinated as schools start to reopen this fall.
“We need to get that to 100 percent,” the official said, noting that teacher labor unions support the effort.
Schools and programs, including Head Start, that fall under direct federal oversight will begin requiring vaccinations. The Biden administration is urging states that haven’t already instituted mandates for public school employees to adopt them.
Schools can use federal dollars allocated through the COVID-19 relief legislation to help implement safe reopenings, including payment for regular testing.
Increasing Testing and Requiring Masking
The Biden administration will mobilize the Defense Production Act to ramp up the availability of rapid coronavirus tests, including at-home tests that have become scarcer as the more contagious Delta variant has spread.
The Biden administration also plans to expand free, federally funded testing sites across the country, particularly in high-risk areas.
Aside from tests, Biden will continue to urge the use of face masks, requiring their use at federal properties and on airlines. The Transportation Safety Administration will soon double fines for travelers who refuse to wear masks.
Protecting the Nation’s Economic Recovery
The Biden administration is plotting several policies to prevent widespread shutdowns or business closures.
More than 150,000 small businesses could ultimately benefit from the COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Its initial phase will be targeted toward small businesses with a 30-day exclusive period.
The administration also plans to streamline the forgiveness requirements for the Paycheck Protection Program and launch a new navigator for small businesses to get access to information about programs they may qualify for.
Improving Care for Those with COVID-19
“The final part of the president’s plan is to improve care for those who did get COVID-19,” the official said.
The administration already has deployed nearly 1,000 federal workers, including doctors, nurses and paramedics, and distributed critical supplies to hospitals around the country.
Under the expanded plan, the Department of Defense will double the number of military health teams to be deployed, the official said.
Health care providers have identified monoclonal antibody treatment as a key tool to improving health outcomes in COVID-19 patients—often preventing hospitalizations and reducing the strain on intensive care units.
Access monoclonal antibodies will be increased by 50 percent, and federal strike teams will be sent to hospitals and other health settings to help launch new treatment programs.