Biden Weighs Vaccine Mandate for Federal Workers

It would be a significant shift in approach by President Biden that reflects the government’s growing concern about the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

By Michael D. Shear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

WASHINGTON — President Biden, in what would be a significant shift in approach, is considering requiring all civilian federal employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or be forced to submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel, officials said on Tuesday.

White House officials said they would reveal more about the president’s plans later this week. Mr. Biden said he would deliver a speech on Thursday about “the next steps in our effort to get more Americans vaccinated.”

The deliberations reflect growing concern among top federal health officials about the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, which poses a special threat to children, older Americans and those with weakened immune systems, including cancer patients. But that concern, officials said, must be balanced against the threat of a backlash that could drive opposition to vaccination.

Asked by a reporter on Tuesday whether he would require vaccinations for the nation’s nearly two million federal workers, Mr. Biden was blunt.

“That’s under consideration right now,” he said, adding, “But if you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were.”

Mr. Biden did not provide details, but administration officials said the idea being debated was similar to a mandate New York City announced on Monday, which would require all 300,000 city employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

It was not clear if Mr. Biden was planning something similar for the military, although he does have the authority to do so. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has said he would not be comfortable with a mandate until the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the vaccine.

The officials said that there was no consideration of simply firing federal employees who refuse to get vaccinated, but that the government could add burdens or restrictions — like extensive testing or a ban on all but essential travel — for those who do not willingly get the protections. They said there was evidence that making life inconvenient for those who refuse the vaccine works reasonably well to increase inoculation rates.

The move underscores the need by Mr. Biden and his top health advisers to grapple with the limits of his legal authority when it comes to forcing Americans to get vaccinated. Aides say the president has no power to simply order all Americans to get a shot, and he cannot require children to be vaccinated as a condition of attending school; that is a function reserved for state or local governments.

But the rapidly spreading variant is forcing the administration to move just as quickly to adjust its response to a pandemic that has already killed more than 600,000 Americans and is once again surging in parts of the country where vaccination rates are low.

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