President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a set of ambitious plans to implement vaccine requirements for health facilities that receive federal funding, federal employers and contractors, and businesses with more than 100 employees in a bid to gain control over the worst wave of Covid-19 infections since last winter.
The requirements are part of a broader six-part blueprint for combating the pandemic that Biden unveiled in a speech Thursday evening. Dubbed “Path out of the Pandemic,” it outlines new initiatives aimed at boosting vaccinations and access to testing, insulating the economy, keeping schools open, expanding mask requirements and improving care for Covid-19 patients.
“This is not about freedom and personal choice. It’s about protecting yourself and those around you,” Biden said. He added, “The bottom line, we’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated coworkers.”
The new vaccine requirements cover approximately 100 million workers, about two-thirds of all American workers, according to Biden.
The Labor Department and Occupational Safety and Health Administration are expected to issue a rule “in the coming weeks” that will lay out the exact timeframe for the new requirements. Those who do not comply with the OSHA standard could face fines up to $14,000 per violation, a senior administration official told reporters.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Thursday that federal workers would have 75 days to comply with the mandate, unless they qualify for limited exemptions.
— The administration’s blueprint also weighed in on booster shots. “By planning now, we will be able to quickly get booster shots into the arms of eligible Americans once approved,” the plan reads. “As soon as authorizations are given, the Administration will be prepared to offer booster shots, starting the week of September 20th.”
— Revving up monoclonal antibody deliveries. Biden also said the administration will boost the availability of monoclonal antibody treatments by expediting the average shipment pace by 50 percent. He suggested that he won’t extend the policy to ivermectin — the horse dewormer paste that’s gained traction in some unvaccinated quarters — by calling the monoclonal antibodies “medicines recommended by real doctors, not conspiracy theorists.”
— Government readies purchase of 280 million at-home rapid tests. The Biden administration plans on spending nearly $2 billion to buy over-the-counter tests from multiple diagnostic manufacturers to boost testing in long-term care facilities, community testing sites and other settings. But it remains unclear how quickly the administration will be able to procure the rapid tests, which have been in shortage due to overwhelming demand.
Walmart, Amazon and Kroger are also being tapped to sell Covid-19 tests at cost for the next three months, and efforts are being made to expand the number of retail pharmacies where people can be tested. Community health centers and food banks are also getting 25 million rapid tests to distribute to further expand access to testing.
BUT THE U.S. TESTING SYSTEM IS STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP WITH DELTA DEMAND — The slate of new Covid-19 initiatives comes shortly after test manufacturers, commercial and public health labs, and public health experts pushed the administration to reopen mass-testing sites that were repurposed as vaccination sites earlier this year to take advantage of excess lab-based capacity across the country.
“Communities moved away from mass testing sites because there was not the demand, and that needs to be reversed,” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “And we need to have a consistent approach to easy access for testing, be it rapid testing or lab-based testing with an increase in collection sites.”
Retail pharmacies including CVS have put into place restrictions on the number of rapid at-home tests consumers can buy at one time due to overwhelming demand for the products. Another problem is that results from the rapid tests are reported to public health authorities infrequently, making it more difficult to understand the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant. The 51.5 million Covid-19 tests recorded by the CDC in August included 11.5 million rapid antigen tests. But HHS estimates that the number of rapid tests actually performed was much larger: 80.2 million.