President Joe Biden on Thursday championed COVID-19 vaccination requirements, determined that the roughly 67 million unvaccinated American adults must get the shot even as he acknowledged that mandates weren't his "first instinct."
Biden had ruled out such requirements before taking office in January, but they now are a tactic he feels forced into using by a stubborn slice of the public that has refused to be inoculated and has jeopardized the lives of others and the nation's economic recovery.
"There is no other way to beat the pandemic than to get the vast majority of the American people vaccinated," Biden said in suburban Chicago at an event promoting the mandates. "While I didn't race to do it right away, that's why I've had to move toward requirements."
In the coming weeks, more than 100 million Americans will be subject to vaccine requirements ordered by Biden. And his administration is encouraging employers to take additional steps voluntarily that would push vaccines on people or subject them to onerous testing requirements.
Forcing people to do something they do not want to do is rarely a winning political strategy. Yet with the majority of the country already vaccinated and with industry on his side, Biden has emerged as an unlikely advocate of browbeating tactics to drive vaccinations.
"Look, I know that vaccination requirements are a tough medicine — unpopular to some, politics for others — but they're lifesaving, they're game-changing for our country," Biden said.
But the requirements have drawn widespread public support. People are hoping to put behind a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 700,000 in the United States, and businesses see vaccinations as a road map toward a revitalized economy.
Biden took that message to a construction site run by Clayco, a large building firm that announced a new vaccinate-or-test requirement for its workforce in conjunction with Biden's visit. The company is taking action weeks before a forthcoming rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that will require all employers with more than 100 employees to require that their staffs be vaccinated or face weekly testing for the coronavirus.
"You're setting an example and a powerful example," Biden told company officials. "I'm calling on more employers to act."
Biden encouraged other businesses to follow suit by taking action before the OSHA rule and to go even further by requiring shots for their employees without offering a test-out option.
Biden also met with the CEO of United Airlines, Scott Kirby, whose company successfully implemented a vaccine mandate, with no option for workers to be tested instead. Less than 1% have failed to comply and risk termination.
Biden's mandates have "worked spectacularly well," said Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University's law school. He added that the president's rules have also had a "modeling effect" for cities, states and businesses. That's what the White House intended.
U.S. officials began anticipating the need for a more forceful vaccination campaign by April, when the nation's supply of shots began to outpace demand. Political conditions meant immediate steps to require shots would have likely proved counterproductive.
The idea of mandatory vaccination faced pushback from critics who argue it smacks of government overreach and takes away people's rights to make their own medical decisions.
So first, officials engaged in a monthslong and multibillion-dollar education and incentives effort to persuade people to get the vaccines of their own accord.
It wasn't enough.
By midsummer, the more transmissible delta variant of the virus was eroding months of health and economic progress and the rate of new vaccinations had slowed to a trickle. Biden's strategy shifted from inducement to compulsion, with a slow, and deliberate heightening of vaccination restrictions.
"It's a good political strategy, but it also is a good public health strategy, because once you have a lot of people that have already been vaccinated. then mandates become more acceptable," Gostin said.
It started with a vaccination requirement for federal frontline health workers serving veterans in VA hospitals. Then the military, followed in steady succession by all healthcare workers reimbursed by the government, all federal workers, and then the more than 80 million Americans who work at mid- and large-size companies.
Nearly 100 million adult Americans were unvaccinated in July. That figure has been cut by one-third since federal, state and private-sector mandates have been imposed.
"Here's the deal: These requirements are already proving that they work," Biden said Thursday.
In conjunction with the president's trip to Chicago, the White House was releasing a report that outlines the early successes of vaccine mandates at driving up vaccination rates and tries to make the economic case for businesses and local governments to put mandates in place. It points to everything from reduced employee hours to diminished restaurant reservations in areas with fewer vaccinations, not to mention markedly reduced instances of serious illness and death from the virus in areas with higher vaccination rates.
Millions of workers, the White House notes, say they are still unable to work due to pandemic-related effects, because their workplaces have been shuttered or reduced service, or because they're afraid to work or can't get child care.
"The evidence has been overwhelmingly clear that these vaccine mandates work," said Charlie Anderson, director of economic policy and budget for the White House COVID-19 response team. "And so now, I think it's a good time to lift up and say, 'Now's the time to move, if you haven't yet.'"
While mandates are the ultimate tool to press Americans to get vaccinated, Biden has resisted, at least thus far, requiring shots or tests for interstate or international air travel, a move that legal experts say is within his powers. Officials said it was under consideration.
"We have a track record, and I think it's clear, that shows that we're pulling available levers to require vaccinations," said Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 coordinator. "And we're not taking anything off the table."
Miller reported from Washington.