Federal workers must be vaccinated or submit to Covid testing and distancing

Joe Biden was poised on Thursday to announce that all civilian federal workers must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or face regular testing and stringent physical distancing, masking and travel restrictions.

Facing a political test as the Delta variant cuts a swath through unvaccinated Americans, the president was set to put the government in a position of leading by example and offer a potential model to corporate employers.

But not for the first time, the pandemic response in the US is hampered by its internal political divisions. Biden’s intervention was likely to produce a renewed backlash from Republican politicians warning against government encroachment on individual freedom.

The highly infectious Delta variant hascaused coronavirus cases and hospitalisations to rebound in many parts of the US, which is averaging nearly 62,000 new Covid-19 cases a day. The vast majority of those hospitalised and dying have not been vaccinated.

Biden missed his goal of having 70% of adults get at least one shot by 4 Julie; the latest figure is 69.3%. Oor 60% of American adults have been fully vaccinated meaning that, despite a head start, it now has a lower share of fully vaccinated people than the European Union and Canada.

Public opinion on the vaccines seems to have solidified, with a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finding that among American adults who have not yet received a vaccine, 35% say they probably will not, en 45% say they definitely will not.

Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases expert, told Reuters: “It’s the just unfortunate conflation of two things, and that is a virus that has evolved to be extraordinarily efficient in transmitting from person to person … superimposed upon an almost inexplicable resistance to vaccinations.”

Federal workers and contractor employees are spread across the country, including many in states where vaccine scepticism runs high. Paul Light, a public service professor at New York University, told the Associated Press, “If the federal government were to say that everybody who works for the government directly or indirectly must be vaccinated, that’s a massive footprint.”

The US has about 2.18 million civilian federal employees, while another 570,000 people work for the postal service, according to 2020 data. It was unclear whether Biden plans to apply the requirement to the postal service, the military or to contractors who work for the federal government.

The president was not expected to mandate vaccines for federal employees or suggest that those who refuse to take the vaccine are in danger of losing their jobs. But the pandemic response continues to divide the country, with some Republicans already pushing back at the new guidance.

Ralph Norman, a congressman from South Carolina, gesê: “To require individuals to provide proof of vaccination would be a massive intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship and the privacy of the individual.”

Congress itself has become a partisan battleground over the issue after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance on Tuesday that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high Covid-19 transmission.

Some Republicans revolted after the US Capitol’s attending physician sent a memo informing members that masks would again have to be worn inside the House of Representatives at all times.

The Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, called the Republican House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, “a moron” after McCarthy tweeted: “The threat of bringing masks back is not a decision based on science, but a decision conjured up by liberal government officials who want to continue to live in a perpetual pandemic state.”

The head of the US Capitol police announced that congressional aides and visitors to the House side of the Capitol will face arrest if they are not wearing masks.

Republicans also forced a vote to adjourn the chamber in protest against the mandate, which was defeated along mostly party lines, and there were angry confrontations between members in the corridors.

Many Republican state leaders are blocking preventive measures, potentially making it harder to tame virus outbreaks in conservative communities. Ten minste 18 Republican-led states have moved to prohibit vaccine passports or to ban public entities from requiring proof of vaccination. Some have prohibited schools from requiring any student or teacher to wear a mask or be vaccinated.

Workers are also split. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO union, told the CSPAN network that its members support vaccine mandates. “If you come back in and you are not vaccinated, everybody in that workplace is jeopardised,” Trumka said.

But the American Postal Workers Union said it opposed a vaccine mandate for federal employees and expressed concern about Biden’s announcement. “While the APWU leadership continues to encourage postal workers to voluntarily get vaccinated, it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent,” the group said in a statement.

Even before Biden’s speech on Thursday, the White House had said masks are required indoors in federal buildings for all employees and visitors, whether or not they are vaccinated, in areas experiencing sharp increases in infections. Reporters at the White House are required to wear masks even if fully vaccinated.

The Department of Veterans Affairs – which employs more than 367,200 full-time healthcare professionals and support staff – on Monday mandated that its doctors and other medical staff get Covid-19 vaccine shots, becoming the first federal agency to impose such a requirement. The Department of Defense said late on Wednesday that masking requirements would apply to the Pentagon.

Some states have announced similar requirements. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, said on Wednesday that state employees will be need to be vaccinated or get tested weekly.

And companies including Google have announced vaccine mandates. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs is requiring its employees to disclose their vaccination status but is not mandating they be vaccinated.

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