WASHINGTON — In his most forceful pandemic actions and words, President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans — private-sector employees as well as health care workers and federal contractors — in an all-out effort to curb the surging COVID-19 delta variant.
Speaking at the White House, Biden sharply criticized the tens of millions of Americans who are not yet vaccinated, despite months of availability and incentives.
“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” he said, all but biting off his words. The unvaccinated minority “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”
Republican leaders — and some union chiefs, too — said Biden was going too far in trying to muscle private companies and workers, a certain sign of legal challenges to come.
Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina said in a statement that “Biden and the radical Democrats (have) thumbed their noses at the Constitution,” while American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley insisted that “changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate.”
On the other hand, there were strong words of praise for Biden’s efforts to get the nation vaccinated from the American Medical Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable — though no direct mention of his mandate for private companies.
The expansive rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.
Biden is also requiring vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.
Biden announced the new requirements in a Thursday afternoon address from the White House as part of a new “action plan” to address the latest rise in coronavirus cases and the stagnating pace of COVID-19 shots.
Just two months ago Biden prematurely declared the nation’s “independence” from the virus. Now, despite more than 208 million Americans having at least one dose of the vaccines, the U.S. is seeing about 300% more new COVID-19 infections a day, about two-and-a-half times more hospitalizations, and nearly twice the number of deaths compared to the same time last year. Some 80 million people remain unvaccinated.
“We are in the tough stretch and it could last for a while,” Biden said.
After months of using promotions to drive the vaccination rate, Biden is taking a much firmer hand, as he blames people who have not yet received shots for the sharp rise in cases killing more than 1,000 people per day and imperiling a fragile economic rebound.
In addition to the vaccination requirements, Biden moved to double federal fines for airline passengers who refuse to wear masks on flights or to maintain face covering requirements on federal property in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
He announced that the government will work to increase the supply of virus tests, and that the White House has secured concessions from retailers including Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to sell at-home testing kits at cost beginning this week.
The administration is also sending additional federal support to assist schools in safely operating, including additional funding for testing. And Biden called for large entertainment venues and arenas to require vaccinations or proof of a negative test for entry.
The requirement for large companies to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing for employees will be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation, an administration official said.
The rule will require that large companies provide paid time off for vaccination.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will extend a vaccination requirement issued earlier this summer — for nursing home staff — to other healthcare settings including hospitals, home-health agencies and dialysis centers.
Separately, the Department of Health and Human Services will require vaccinations in Head Start Programs, as well as schools run by the Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education, affecting about 300,000 employees.
Biden’s order for executive branch workers and contractors includes exceptions for workers seeking religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, according to press secretary Jen Psaki. Federal workers who don’t comply will be referred to their agencies’ human resources departments for counseling and discipline, to include potential termination.
An AP-NORC poll conducted in August found 55% of Americans in favor of requiring government workers to be fully vaccinated, compared with 21% opposed. Similar majorities also backed vaccine mandates for health care workers, teachers working at K-12 schools and workers who interact with the public, as at restaurants and stores.
Biden has encouraged COVID-19 vaccine requirements in settings like schools, workplaces and university campuses. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Board of Education v oted to require all students 12 and older to be fully vaccinated in the the nation’s second-largest school district.
Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, said in late July it was requiring all workers at its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, as well as its managers who travel within the U.S., to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 4. But the company had stopped short of requiring shots for its frontline workers.
CVS Health said in late August it would require certain employees who interact with patients to be fully vaccinated by the end of October. That includes nurses, care managers and pharmacists.
In the government, several federal agencies have previously announced vaccine requirements for much of their staffs, particularly those in healthcare roles like the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Pentagon moved last month to require all servicemembers to get vaccinated. Combined, the White House estimates those requirements cover 2.5 million Americans. Thursday’s order is expected to affect nearly 2 million more federal workers and potentially millions of contractors.
Biden’s measures should help, but what’s really needed is a change in mindset for many people, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
“There is an aspect to this now that has to do with our country being so divided,” said Sharfstein. “This has become so politicized that people can’t see the value of a vaccination that can save their lives. Our own divisions are preventing us from ending a pandemic.”
More than 177 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but confirmed cases have shot up in recent weeks to an average of about 140,000 per day with on average about 1,000 deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most of the spread — and the vast majority of severe illness and death — is occurring among those not yet fully vaccinated. So-called breakthrough infections in vaccinated people occur, but tend to be far less dangerous.
Federal officials are moving ahead with plans to begin administering booster shots of the mRNA vaccines to bolster protection against the more transmissible delta variant. Last month Biden announced plans to make them available beginning Sept. 20, but only the Pfizer vaccine will likely have received regulatory approval for a third dose by that time.
Officials are aiming to administer the booster shots about eight months after the second dose of the two-dose vaccines.
The contents of St. Joseph’s sewers are helping predict COVID-19 trends in Missouri.
The City of St. Joseph is a part of a statewide sewershed project that can correlate increases in viral loads with increases in COVID-19 cases a week in advance. The data is used to inform communities of upward trends before local tests identify positive cases.
The local water protection facility was one of the first approached by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health and Senior Services to participate in the study, which started in May 2020.
“The idea behind it is that you can potentially relate how many active COVID patients you have in your sewershed based on the load of COVID that we see in our sewershed,” said Katie Bruegge, the technical services manager at the St. Joseph water protection facility.
Now, more than 85 cities send in weekly sewer samples for the project. But local water protection facilities are just the first step in the process, which is as follows:
1) Water protection facilities across the state extract weekly samples from wastewater and send them to the University of Missouri for testing.
2) Scientists extract and analyze the viral genetic material from the samples.
3) An analyzer measures the viral load in each sample using a polymerase chain reaction. This is a similar test to a nasal swab.
4) Viral load results are then calculated based upon the number of viral markers per liter of wastewater and the flow rate at each water treatment facility when the sample was taken.
The lab calculates the moving average of the number of viral markers per day to identify COVID-19 trends in a community.
“Looking at those viral loads and the number of virus particles that we’re seeing in the sewershed, we were able to correlate that with case counts in communities to see if there was some sort of pattern or trend,” said Jeff Wenzel, the chief of the Bureau of Environmental Epidemiology within the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
For example, St. Joseph has experienced a downward trend in viral loads since the beginning of August. This directly correlates to a decline in cases and hospitalizations during that time.
Once new variants were detected across the country, the DHSS added a wrinkle to its project. In February, it began testing for variants.
“We look at a smaller section of the RNA, where a lot of these unique mutations are occurring,” Wenzel said. “That gives us an indication of what mutations or what variants are present in that community.”
The earliest “probable” detection of a variant in the St. Joseph water protection was May 3, according to the samples. Starting May 31, the alpha and delta variants were “presumed” to be in the community.
The viral load and variant tests aren’t foolproof, but based on past results the predictive trends have been accurate.
“A significant increase in viral load is also followed by a significant increase in known human cases at least 70% of the time, so we were very accurate as far as being predictive in those trends,” Wenzel said.
St. Joseph’s current positivity rate for COVID testing is at 8.17% as of Thursday, according to the St. Joseph Health Department. Officials reported 52 new cases of the virus since Tuesday, and 18 people are hospitalized at Mosaic Life Care for COVID.
A St. Joseph man has filed a lawsuit against the Dillon Company for $5,000 after the company allegedly failed to complete work at his home and sold its Downtown showroom.
Steve Miller filed the lawsuit in Buchanan County’s small claims court. News-Press NOW previously reported that the Dillon Company sold its showroom to a new company, River Ridge Improvements.
“The Dillon Company has closed its doors, I could not contact them by phone, email or in-person,” Miller wrote in his complaint.
Chris Bennett, the owner of the Dillon Company, also is named in the suit. Bennett didn’t respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
He also hasn’t responded to multiple requests for an interview from News-Press NOW after word of the showroom sale and initial complaints from consumers.
Bennett or another representative from the Dillon Company have been summoned to court on Sept. 27 to answer Miller’s lawsuit.
River Ridge Improvements, the new business operating in the Dillon Company’s old showroom, isn’t legally obligated to honor contracts from the Dillon Company.
Pam Sten, another disaffected Dillon Company customer, told News-Press NOW she had filed a small claims lawsuit against the business in Andrew County but has since withdrawn it. Sten said River Ridge Improvements has agreed to install doors she purchased while working with the Dillon Company.
“I’m a bit apprehensive of course, but if River Ridge Improvements is serious about establishing a solid reputation in St. Joseph, they should deliver stellar work,” said Sten in an email.
Sten previously said River Ridge Improvements was attempting to help her.
“(A salesperson) explained to me that River Ridge is interested in establishing a relationship with the St. Joseph community and that they wanted to honor the contracts that the Dillon Company had with the community,” said Sten.
Two other customers told News-Press NOW they’ve paid for work from the Dillon Company but didn’t receive the service. One, Charles Daniel, paid $14,000 for a bathroom remodel.
Another, Elaine Stoll, paid $7,000 for materials she never received.
St. Joseph has started to see an uptick in debris fires that only gets worse as things begin to dry up in the fall.
Battalion Chief Paris Jenkins of the St. Joseph Fire Department said many such fires start from a common source.
“Debris fires that are accidental many times are caused by improperly discarded smoking materials,” he said. “Many times improperly discarded cigarettes will go into the trash can before they have been given time to cool.”
Jenkins said not only should people be careful to put out lit materials before discarding them, but they also should never drop cigarettes on the ground or throw them out a window.
“There really is not a good place other than the proper disposal place,” he said. “They have the little cigarette butt things there beside the stores before you go into a store. That’s a lot better than setting them down or just giving them a toss and then they roll around for a little while.”
Changes in the weather can bring heightened concerns, especially in the fall.
“Wherever the wind is blowing has a tendency to collect debris. ... It doesn’t take much to get it going from there,” Jenkins said.
As the fall approaches so does open burning. Jenkins said he wants people to be careful as foliage collects, creating a perfect storm for a fire starting in the leaves.
The National Fire Prevention Association found that 5% of structure fires were started by smoking materials but they accounted for almost 25% of home fire deaths. Jenkins said even discarding a cigarette outside of a building causes fire concerns.
“They’re in the mulch that’s there beside the building and then it starts underneath the siding, somebody smells smoke, it takes us a little while to find it,” Jenkins said. “But eventually, that’s what we’ll come up with if it’s around a porch structure.”