WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden in a passionate address on Thursday (July 29), as the US sees soaring new Covid-19 case numbers, outlined a slew of incentives to get reluctant Americans to get vaccinations, including paying them US$100 (S$130) for getting fully vaccinated.
The President also directed all federal employees and onsite contractors to show that they are vaccinated, or otherwise to submit to regular coronavirus testing, as well as to wear masks. They are also not allowed to travel for work.
The federal government employs more than four million Americans, including over two million in the federal civilian workforce, throughout the country and abroad.
This does not amount to a mandate to federal employees to get vaccinated or lose their jobs, but it does make it very inconvenient for them not to be vaccinated.
The President also said the Pentagon must determine “how and when” the vaccine will be mandated for all service members.
In a marked shift to a more forceful tone, the President, occasionally sounding exasperated, came close to ordering Americans to get vaccinated.
Nationwide, the four-week Covid-19 case count more than doubled as of last Monday from the previous four weeks.
Cases, and hospitalisations – even of the very young – are rising everywhere, but the increases are fastest in areas of low vaccination rates. One big driver is the more contagious Delta variant of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The steepest case increases have been in the south and south-east, where Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina are dealing with big outbreaks. All five of those states have rates of full vaccinations below the United States’ 49.2 per cent national rate.
Americans are needlessly dying, the President said. “Right now, too many people are dying, or watching someone they love die.”
“Last month, the studies showed that over 99 per cent of Covid-19 deaths had been among the unvaccinated,” he said.
Vaccinations had “hit a brick wall” he said.
“If in fact you are unvaccinated, you present a problem,” he added.
“This is an American tragedy,” he added. “If you’re out there unvaccinated, you don’t have to die.”
Mr Biden said he was concerned that some people were still unable to leave work to get vaccinated, and encouraged small- and medium-sized businesses to take advantage of federal programmes covering the cost of paid leave for employees to use to get vaccinated.
The programme would be extended to cover paid leave for employers to take family members to get vaccinated.
“We are going to use the full set of carrots and sticks,” White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told MSNBC after the President concluded his remarks.
In the six months since he took office on Jan 20, 164 million Americans have been vaccinated, the President said.
The economy is also recovering; separately the Department of Commerce announced on its website that the US economy grew at 6.5 per cent in the second quarter of the year.
“We still have a lot of work to do” with the economy but we need “to stay ahead of this virus,” the President pleaded. “Please, exercise responsible judgment. Get vaccinated.”
Meanwhile, more cities and organisations announced vaccine and masking requirements. In Washington DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that from early Saturday morning, all people over the age of two years must wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccination status.
The bolder White House will inevitably pour fuel on the political and cultural divide between those reluctant to take the vaccine, or mask up – many in the more heavily Republican states – and those who have.
“A mask is not a political statement” the President insisted. “It’s about protecting yourself and protecting others.”
But there is a basic weakness in the logic that makes it shaky, analysts say.
“We are asking the vaccinated to mask to protect the unvaccinated who do not want a vaccine and are unlikely to wear a mask!” tweeted Dr Carlos del Rio, distinguished professor of medicine at Emory University’s School of Medicine.
The President tried to address this: “I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have gotten vaccinated already,” he said.
“But… If incentives help us beat this virus, I think we should use them. We all benefit when we get more people vaccinated.”
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