Last Thursday, President Joe Biden made his most aggressive move to date to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking from the White House, the president unveiled new, sweeping coronavirus vaccine mandates that will impact millions of Americans and, hopefully, spur a much-needed flood of inoculations as the Delta variant runs rampant.
Specifically, Biden ordered all businesses with 100-plus workers to require their employees to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing. Furthermore, he announced that most health care providers and facilities that receive Medicaid or Medicare funding from the federal government will need to immunize their staff, a step that could impact roughly 50,000 medical locations across the country. Additionally, the president signed an executive order pushing all federal workers to get vaccinated — which, critically, does not allow for an alternative for regular testing for those seeking to sidestep getting the shot.
“We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” Biden said during the announcement, which also included vaccination requirements for all staffers in the Defense Department, federally operated schools for Native Americans, and Head Start program. “What makes it incredibly more frustrating is we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner.”
This rigorous approach couldn’t be more necessary. America is currently enveloped in the worst throes of the pandemic since last year, with the highly contagious variant fueling nationwide spikes in infections and deaths that have exceeded 150,000 and 1,500 a day, respectively. Regardless of the flood of media attention that’s been given to breakthrough cases of vaccinated people, the vast majority of those contracting the virus (and nearly everyone hospitalized by it) are people who are unvaccinated. Even children have become exponentially endangered by Delta: During a three-week stretch in August, cases among kids more than quadrupled nationwide. That was before schools across the country kicked off in-person classes, too.
And yet, despite this particularly harrowing form of deja vu, U.S. vaccination rates remain worrisome. Even after tactics like vaccine lotteries and cash awards spurred a brief surge in vaccines last month, only 63 percent of Americans ages 12 and up are fully inoculated. (74 percent of eligible people have received at least one dose of the vaccine.) That’s nowhere where they need to be, especially with millions of previously vaccinated individuals expected to require booster vaccines in the coming months.
If these trends tell us anything, it’s that the roughly 100 million vaccine holdouts won’t be swayed by monetary gifts, easy access to doses, or concerns about communal health. Broader public health measures, like the longstanding shot requirements in schools for diseases like polio, must be taken to get those people inoculated. That’s where Biden’s employer vaccine order comes in. By implementing such directives in workplaces nationwide, this strategy represents a significant move towards instituting vital public health practices, rather than simply encouraging them.
If the message wasn’t strong enough, Biden punctuated his address with his sharpest critique yet of non-vaxxed Americans: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” he said. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”
These steps are especially needed in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott’s right-wing extremism has put the Lone Star State in a truly nightmarish scenario. From threatening to shut down restaurants that require proof of vaccination for indoor dining to vehemently opposing even the most basic of safety strategies (think mask mandates in public schools), the Republican’s embracement of partisan politics over public health has exacerbated the crisis’ carnage. Indeed, Abbott has shown he’s pro-choice when it comes to vaccines, but not a woman’s right to choose. Consequently, Texas, which only has around 300 open ICU beds for a population of 30 million, has become the poster child of the Delta variant’s dangers.
Abbott rebuked the president’s new policy almost immediately after its release. In a statement through his spokesperson, the governor claimed that his state, where nearly 60,000 people have died from the virus (including more than 6,000 people in the last month alone), has everything under control.
“The federal government needs to stop trying to run private businesses,” the statement read. “Texans and Americans alike have learned and mastered the safe practices to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID, and do not need the government to tell them how to do so.”
Of course, Abbott’s assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. Nobody here has “mastered” the safe practices to combat the virus, let alone the highly contagious variant. Even more, his administration is actively inhibiting vital public health protocols by suing school districts across the state for requiring masks on their campuses. This isn’t about protecting Texans, nor is it about protecting business interests; it’s merely the latest cynical, nihilistic move by a governor whose sole interests are his political interests.
Considering the outcry over Biden’s recent mandates, it should come as no surprise that Republicans are ravenously searching for ways to strike them down in court. There have also been reports that these moves may escalate an already-staggering employee exodus from workplaces. But none of that is shocking, nor should it be discouraging. Inoculating the tens of millions of remaining vaccine holdouts, many of whom reside in Texas, will be our country’s most difficult — and most important — undertaking for years to come. In that vein, employer-based vaccine requirements may be the latest, most consequential, move to boost inoculations in America, but they won’t be the last.
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