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WASHINGTON — President Biden acknowledged on Thursday evening that he and many other vaccinated Americans are “frustrated” with the 80 million Americans who have declined immunization against the coronavirus. The needless ravages caused by the Delta variant, he said, were “frustrating” to watch, repeating a word that seemed to signal the evening’s theme.
The president blamed governors playing “pandemic politics” by resisting mask mandates and downplaying the power of vaccines for prolonging the pandemic.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” he said in a speech from the White House, making clear that he blamed the unvaccinated for the current surge in the U.S. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”
The spring was marked by vaccine incentives, including guns and beer. The summer saw the rise of mandates, including from the president and some governors. Now it is fall, and a level of exasperation has set in. Only 53.4 percent of Americans are vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, giving the coronavirus plenty of opportunities to spread.
The president did virtually nothing to disguise his dismay on Thursday, his own mood mirroring that of many Americans. Schools are closed once again, and the economic recovery is faltering, too. At one point during his remarks, Biden leaned against his podium in the State Dining Room of the White House and, in his trademark stage whisper, addressed the unvaccinated directly: “What more do you need to see?” he asked, apparently referencing the rampant misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines that has prompted millions to refuse inoculations.
Much like the speech he recently gave on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden's Thursday address was raw with emotion, seeming to show the most powerful elected official in the world confronting the limits of his power. The Biden administration concluded last spring that it did not have the authority to enforce a national vaccine requirement. Some believe that calculation was mistaken, and that the federal government should have been putting more pressure on the unvaccinated all along. Now the president faces the prospect of a surge that could last for months, since the arrival of cold weather will drive people indoors, where the virus spreads much more easily.
“We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” the president admitted. He returned time and again to blame the unvaccinated for the nation’s current predicament, arguing that the holdouts “can cause a lot of damage — and they are.” It was not, in other words, a happy speech, an announcement of benchmarks met or exceeded, of triumphs collected at the expense of a seemingly intractable foe. The Delta variant has relegated such sunny pronouncements to a distant memory, rolling back the progress Biden made during the first several months of his administration.
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has faced criticism that it was too quick to declare victory over the coronavirus earlier this summer, even as it was becoming clear that the highly transmissible Delta variant was on its way. On the Fourth of July, President Biden held a party on the South Lawn of the White House, declaring that the country was on the cusp of “independence” from the virus.
That declaration appears to have been premature. The Delta variant has torn through Florida and Texas before more recently moving on to states like Idaho. The vast majority of the people who have become seriously ill have not been vaccinated, since the coronavirus vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death.
Other than to put the unvaccinated on notice, the purpose of Thursday’s speech was the announcement of six measures intended to increase vaccination rates and hasten the end of the current surge, if not of the entire pandemic. The measures included, most notably, a requirement that all federal employees and contractors get vaccinated, with no exemptions.
Biden also called on the Department of Labor to issue a rule requiring all private businesses employing more than 100 people to mandate vaccinations for their workers, or to administer weekly testing for those who refuse. Hospitals that participate in the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs must also vaccinate their estimated 17 million employees.
Those actions alone, the administration believes, could result in the vaccination of as many as 100 million people, though it is not yet clear how the new orders will be enforced. Federal employees, for example, will have to attest to having been vaccinated. But they will not have to show proof of vaccination.
The new measures also include a preparation for offering booster shots to recipients of the two-dose mRNA vaccines; the Pfizer vaccine, in particular, appears not to be as effective against Delta. Booster shots are nevertheless contingent on approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which has not yet been granted.
“As soon as they are authorized, those eligible will be able to get a booster right away,” Biden said, although he provided few details about the timing. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy had previously said that boosters would begin to be administered on Sept. 20, but it is not clear that Biden will be able to keep to that timeline.
In an effort to keep schools open, Biden also promised to reimburse school districts that have imposed mask mandates in contravention of the bans by Republican governors enjoining school districts not to make facial coverings mandatory. He also called on states to require vaccines for all school employees, which some Democratic governors have already done and which most Republican governors have declined to do.
“Vaccination requirements in schools are nothing new,” the president noted. “They work.”He added that employees of the federally funded early education Head Start program must also get their shots.
To shore up the economic recovery, Biden said his administration will increase the maximum amount small businesses can borrow from a COVID-related fund from $500,000 to $2 million. He also announced that he would use the Defense Production Act to boost production of rapid, at-home diagnostic tests, which some experts believe have been underused, as an effective means of detecting infections. Those tests, he said, will soon be widely available — at affordable prices — at major retailers such as Walmart and Kroger. The federal government will also increase shipments of monoclonal antibodies to states. The treatments can help people suffering from symptomatic COVID-19 illness and have been used widely in some states, such as Florida.
In addition, Biden said that the Transportation Safety Administration would double fines for people who “refuse to mask.” Scenes of passengers confronting and assaulting airline attendants who ask them to don facial coverings have gone viral on social media throughout the summer, adding an unwelcome new dimension to pandemic travel.
“By the way, show some respect,” the president said angrily to the instigators of such scenes. It was a message in keeping with the evening’s tone, which alternated between prodding, recrimination and, last of all, the promise of better days ahead.
“We have the tools,” Biden said toward the end of his remarks. “Now we just have to finish the job.”
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