President Biden said on Tuesday he was weighing whether to require all federal workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the nation faces surging infection rates and hospitalizations caused by the rampant Delta variant.
He spoke just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should go back to wearing masks indoors in regions where infections were on the rise.
The moves illustrate how far the nation is from the ‘summer of freedom’ that Biden promised just last month.
Biden was asked about mandatory vaccinations for federal employees during a visit to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
‘That’s under consideration right now,’ he said, ‘but if you’re not vaccinated you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were.’
He added that masking and vaccination were the best way to avoid a repeat of the lockdowns the country endured last year.
President Biden said mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for federal workers were ‘under consideration’ during a visit to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in McLean, VA
He denied that changing official advice was causing confusion and instead said it was the unvaccinated who were to blame for rising levels of infection
The Delta variant is blamed for surging numbers of COVID-19 infections in the U.S., triggering a range of new measures to halt its spread
President Biden had promised a ‘summer of freedom’ but the numbers keep going up
‘The more we learn about this virus and the Delta variation the more we have to be worried and concerned,’ he said.
‘And the only thing we know for sure, if those other 100 million people got vaccinated we’d be in a very different world.’
In the meantime the White House released a statement in which Biden said he would be laying out the ‘next steps’ in getting more Americans vaccinated on Thursday.
‘By following the science, and by doing our part by getting vaccinated, America can beat COVID,’ he said.
‘In the meantime, more vaccinations and mask wearing in the areas most impacted by the Delta variant will enable us to avoid the kind of lockdowns, shutdowns, school closures, and disruptions we faced in 2020.’
But officials know that vaccine mandates come with a risk.
A day earlier, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: ‘The president certainly recognizes that he is not always the right voice to every community about the benefits of getting vaccinated, which is why we have invested as much as we have in local voices and empowering local, trusted voices.’
On Tuesday, as the CDC was preparing to issue its guidance, Psaki said vaccinated people should wear masks indoors to protect their loved one.
‘We’re not saying that wearing a mask is convenient, or people feel like it, but we are telling you that that is the way to protect yourself protect your loved ones and that’s why the CDC is issuing this guidance,’ she said.
The White House is preparing to return to wearing masks again if required by the new federal guidance and rising rates of COVID-19, she added.
Within a matter of hours that was the case.
The new guidance set a threshold for masking at 50 cases per 100,000 people, based on a seven-day rolling average. In Washington the number was over 63 on Tuesday afternoon.
As a result Vice President Kamala Harris’s office told reporters to mask up as they arrived to cover her meeting with Native American leaders to discuss voting rights, and signs were going up in the James Brady Briefing Room informing people they would have to use face coverings even if fully vaccinated.
Critics have accused infectious disease experts of flip-flopping on their guidance.
But Psaki said the Delta variant had upended the scientific thinking since masking requirements were relaxed.
‘That is their job,’ she said.
‘Their job is to look at evolving information, evolving data, an evolving historic pandemic and provide guidance to the American public.’
Although the number of cases is on the rise, officials say vaccination protects against developing severe cases of COVID-19 and is saving lives
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the guidance was changing as the position on the ground was changing and scientists understood more about the virus and the pandemi
At the White House, that would mean officials preparing to follow the new CDC guidelines and to monitor conditions that may require masking.
‘First, we will, of course, be abiding by every aspect of the CDC guidelines on masking that they provide this afternoon,’ she said.
‘And that does mean, as you conveyed, that we will be looking at the rates in different areas where the president may visit and also the rates as they if they move in Washington, D.C. and we will apply guidance accordingly.’
Psaki faced repeated questions during the daily briefing about whether President Biden had been too quick to declare a ‘summer of freedom’ last month as the country faces setbacks in the fight against COVID-19.
She insisted the responsible thing to do was to keep updating guidance as conditions changed.
‘We’re at war, we continue to be at war with a virus and evolving pandemic,’ she said.
‘Our responsibility here is to always leave with the science, and always lead with the advice of health and medical experts, and we’re going to continue to provide information to all of you about how to protect yourself and save your lives.’
Most new infections in the U.S. continue to be among unvaccinated people. But ‘breakthrough’ infections, which generally cause milder illness, can occur in vaccinated people.