Biden to expand vaccine requirements to frontline health workers

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President Joe Biden on Thursday is expected to announce plans to require staff vaccinations at all health facilities that receive federal funding, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.

The move would represent a dramatic expansion of the administration’s bid to boost vaccination rates among frontline health care workers, and comes as the administration readies a redoubling of efforts to rein in the virus.

Biden last month said he would impose staff vaccination requirements on all federally funded nursing homes, a directive expected to cover roughly 15,000 facilities employing 1.3 million people. Now, he is poised to extend the order to a far wider group of providers, including major hospitals across the nation that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.

The requirement is part of a broader six-part plan for combating the pandemic that Biden is set to unveil later this afternoon, with a range of new initiatives aimed at boosting vaccinations, access to testing and aiding the Covid-19 fight abroad.

Biden is expected to issue an executive order requiring that all federal workers get vaccinated against Covid-19, with no option for being regularly tested as an alternative, people familiar with the plan said. That’s an escalation from his earlier encouragement that the federal workforce seek vaccination or be subject to a range of restrictions.

The president in his speech also plans to call on governors to get all teachers and school staff vaccinated, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, as well as encourage schools to institute regular testing regimes. He will urge employers over a certain size to institute requirements that employees get vaccinated or submit to regular testing.

And in an effort to build out the administration’s pandemic response abroad, Biden is expected to call for a global summit on Covid-19 to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly later this month.

The White House declined to comment on the specifics of Biden's remarks.

Biden is also expected to touch on the administration’s plan for Covid-19 booster shots, after an initial rollout prompted broad confusion and accusations of political pressure on government health agencies.

The White House initially announced that it would make boosters available beginning the week of Sept. 20, but has since walked plans back after the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control warned it would be unable to authorize them for all Americans by that deadline.

The new plan comes just two months after Biden held a July Fourth celebration at the White House, where he declared that the nation was close to vanquishing the pandemic.

Since then, cases fueled by the more contagious Delta variant have skyrocketed, and the administration has struggled to chart a clear course through the crisis. The CDC in particular has come under fire over its muddled messaging, including abruptly advising people to once again wear masks indoors and releasing an array of confusing data on the implications of so-called breakthrough Covid-19 cases.

A Gallup poll earlier this week found that more Americans now disagree than agree that the CDC has communicated a clear pandemic response plan. And for the first time, more people reported feeling negatively about Biden’s own Covid-19 communication than positively.

That has fueled a renewed emphasis on the pandemic fight, which Democrats view as critical to Biden’s public standing and their odds of keeping full control of Congress in 2022.

Republicans in the meantime are waging pitched battles over mask-wearing in schools, with some like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowing to punish officials that try to make it a requirement.

The federal vaccination requirement will apply to all executive branch workers and contractors, bringing the rest of the government in line with the tougher requirements adopted earlier by the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and parts of the health department.

Until Thursday, the rest of the federal workforce had the option to submit to regular testing, mask-wearing and restrictions on travel rather than get vaccinated. That clause will now be eliminated, bringing the entire government in line with the approach that Biden has pushed private-sector companies to adopt.

Biden during his speech is also expected to urge schools to implement regular testing for all students, teachers and staff, two people familiar with the matter said.

The White House earlier this year allocated $10 billion to help schools create Covid-19 testing regimes, but few took advantage of the opportunity amid a lull in cases earlier this year. Now, as the Delta variant fuels a resurgence and children return to classrooms, Biden will press schools to refocus their efforts on regular testing.

Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the effort to implement testing in schools across the country is a good idea. Public health experts have raised concern in recent weeks that infections among children are rising as they head back into classrooms for the start of the school year.

"I have been surprised at how many are not testing routinely," Plescia said.

But it is unclear how the Biden administration plans to get school districts that have not already implemented testing to do so. So far, just 1,602 institutions have signed up to partake in a separate $650 million federal effort to organize testing at regional coordination hubs at K-8 schools and congregate settings like homeless shelters.

One industry source expressed doubt at the effectiveness of what they described as the Biden team employing a strategy of "No, really guys, we mean it."

"We all assume that it's just Texas and Iowa that aren't testing to protect kids. But the reality is plenty of affluent suburbs in Connecticut, Maryland, etc. aren't even testing at all," the source said.

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