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Biden’s Power Over Shots Hits a Wall in Fight to Curb Delta

July 30, 2021, 6:00 AM

President Joe Biden made his best effort to juice vaccinations on Thursday, as the delta variant of coronavirus sweeps the U.S., ordering federal employees to get shots or face strict public health precautions and offering ordinary American holdouts $100 for a jab.

But his latest announcement showed the limit of his powers, and what happens next in the pandemic is largely out of the president’s hands.

White House officials had hoped that with free vaccines in plentiful supply across the country, most Americans would voluntarily get inoculated, snuffing out the pandemic. But Biden missed a target of getting at least one shot into 70% of adult arms by July 4, and only about 49% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The pace of shots has fallen dramatically since April, when more than 3 million Americans a day were lining up at mass vaccination clinics, pharmacies, hospitals and other sites. There’s been a rebound for first shots recently in a few states hard-hit by delta, though it’s too soon to tell whether that will make much difference.

WATCH: President Joe Biden will require federal workers to prove they’ve been vaccinated against Covid-19 or wear masks and submit to frequent testing.
Source: Bloomberg

About a month and a half after Biden celebrated gaining “the upper hand” against Covid-19, his administration once again is recommending Americans wear masks indoors in areas where there’s substantial spread of coronavirus -- whether they’re vaccinated or not.

On Thursday, Biden stopped short of threatening to fire federal workers who refuse vaccination, as some hospitals and health systems have done, and he instructed the military to examine how and when to add Covid-19 to the vaccinations troops are already required to receive, instead of simply ordering them to get shots.

“If tomorrow I can wave a wand and every American was vaccinated, then, in fact, we would be out of the woods,” Biden said in remarks at the White House, acknowledging the shortcomings of his office.

And he nodded at rising frustration and anger among vaccinated Americans, many of whom blame the unvaccinated -- who are particularly concentrated in politically conservative areas, surveys have shown -- for the continuing crisis.

Read more: Biden’s ‘Summer of Joy’ Turns Grim as Delta Infections Skyrocket

“America is divided between the majority of eligible people who are vaccinated and those who are not. I understand many of you in the majority are frustrated with the consequences of the failure of the minority to get vaccinated,” he said. “This is not about red states and blue states. It’s literally about life and death.”

Biden said it’s unclear if the federal government can require the entire country to get vaccines but that he hoped more private employers would take note of his latest actions and require their workers to get shots.

The surge of the delta variant has prompted a new reckoning on vaccines and masks across corporate America, with some companies making shots mandatory or reimposing mask mandates and delaying their workers’ return to the office. Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, on Thursday ordered vaccinated and unvaccinated residents alike to resume wearing masks indoors.

Read more: Vaccine Pressure Grows as Patience Runs Thin for U.S. Employers

“I had asked the Justice Department to determine whether that is -- they’re able to do that legally, and they can,” Biden said of inoculation requirements. “Local communities can do that. Local businesses can do that. It’s still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country. I don’t know that yet.”

LISTEN: Bloomberg’s Wendy Benjaminson discusses vaccinations and testing with Paul Sweeney and Matt Miller on Bloomberg Radio.

‘Straight Talk’

There was little immediate criticism of Biden’s latest moves from Republican leaders in Congress and in states, some of whom have recently begun to advocate for shots themselves in the face of the delta surge.

The administration for weeks has tried to counter misinformation about the impact of the vaccines, calling on social media companies to step up scrutiny of their content. On Thursday, the president appealed to Americans to overcome their hesitancy, stressing that vaccines are “the very best defense” against serious illness and hospitalization.

“From the moment I was elected, I said I’d always give it to you straight from the shoulder. And we need some straight talk right now,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of fear and misinformation in the country and we need to cut through it with facts, with science, with the truth.”

He urged Americans not to view vaccination through a partisan lens, told states to use money from his pandemic relief bill to offer $100 for holdouts to get shots, and sought to reassure them that the vaccines are effective and will prevent death.

And he told federal workers that they must submit proof of vaccination or be subject to many public health precautions, including regular testing for infection, requirements they wear masks and socially distance in the workplace, and restrictions on their travel.

State Efforts

Some states are joining Biden in stepping up the push for wider vaccination. The governments of California, New York, New Mexico and North Carolina all said this week that state workers must get vaccinated or be regularly tested for Covid-19. Puerto Rico’s governor has also mandated Covid-19 vaccinations for the commonwealth’s public workers.

“Right now, it’s very simple: Get a vaccine, or else you will be tested,” New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday while announcing an order that will take effect Aug. 2.

“Until more people get the vaccine, we will continue living with the very real threat of serious disease, and we will continue to see more dangerous and contagious variants like delta,” North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said in a statement on Thursday announcing his state’s requirement.

Both governors are Democrats.

Others are encouraging shots without mandates. Ohio officials announced on Wednesday that state employees who get vaccinated will be eligible for a $100 benefit, and their spouses will get $25.

The state already offers $25 incentives to employees who get vaccinated against nine other diseases including human papillomavirus, hepatitis A and influenza. The enhanced coronavirus benefit will be retroactive and apply to those who were vaccinated before the announcement, according to a spokesperson for Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican.

Colorado is still deciding whether or not to implement a mandate for state employees. “We are looking at the new federal policy and weighing if it is right to apply to the state workforce and how we would operationalize that,” Conor Cahill, press secretary for Governor Jared Polis, said in an emailed statement Thursday.

North Dakota is encouraging but not requiring state employees to get vaccinated and testing is voluntary. Indiana isn’t requiring state workers to be vaccinated at this time, according to Erin Murphy, press secretary for Governor Eric Holcomb.

Some states are rejecting any kind of mandate. Michigan isn’t considering a vaccine mandate, according to a spokesperson for Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and Idaho Governor Brad Little doesn’t plan to require state workers to receive the vaccine, according to a spokesperson.

And in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said the shots will “always remain voluntary-- never forced,” at the same time lauding vaccines as the most effective defense against the virus.

--With assistance from Jennifer Epstein, Nic Querolo, Fola Akinnibi, Amanda Albright and Danielle Moran.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Jenny Leonard in Washington at jleonard67@bloomberg.net;
Skylar Woodhouse in New York at swoodhouse15@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net

John Harney

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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