WASHINGTON - U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday announced a new six-point plan to combat the surge in recent weeks of delta variant coronavirus cases and deaths, including sweeping vaccine mandates and other measures.
Biden ordered 2.5 million federal workers and contractors, workers in most hospital and health care settings, and any employee of a company with more than 100 workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus as part of a new effort to control the infectious disease.
Employees of large private companies may opt for weekly testing for the virus in lieu of being inoculated, but the new order eliminates that option for federal workers.
Some companies are already requiring their workers to get vaccinated or lose their jobs.
"If you want to work with the federal government or do business with us, get vaccinated," Biden said in a speech Thursday evening, stressing that he wanted to protect vaccinated American workers from potentially unvaccinated co-workers.
Biden also announced that the Department of Labor would require relevant businesses to provide paid time off for their employees to receive the vaccine.
It was not immediately clear if Biden's order covering federal workers and contractors would allow for exceptions for those seeking religious or medical exemptions from vaccination.
The president also spelled out new efforts to persuade unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated, protect those already vaccinated with booster shots in coming weeks, keep schools open, increase testing and require face masks in some situations, advance the economic recovery and improve care for those who have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The U.S. economy, the world's largest, has advanced sharply since the worst of the pandemic that began 18 months ago, but the number of new jobs in the country slowed markedly in August, which Biden blamed on the surge in new coronavirus cases.
The president announced more support for small businesses by allowing more of them access to low-cost loans. He also said the Small Business Administration is streamlining the loan forgiveness process and launching a program to help those in underserved areas better connect with federal, state and local resources.
The latest surge in U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths is mostly among those who are not vaccinated, although there have been some breakthrough infections among those who got their shots months ago.
"This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Biden said Thursday, noting that roughly a quarter of Americans remain unvaccinated.
"That 25% can cause a lot of damage, and they are," Biden added, pointing to overcrowded hospitals and intensive care units across the country.
The latest surge has pushed hospitals and health care workers across the U.S. to a breaking point, with some intensive care units filled to capacity with COVID-19 patients.
More than 177 million people out of the country's population of 332 million have been vaccinated, but vaccines have yet to be approved by federal health regulators for children younger than 12 years old.
More than 62% of the population 12 and older has been vaccinated, but about 150,000 new cases of COVID-19 are being recorded each day in recent weeks and about 1,000 people a day are dying.
For a variety of reasons, such as a belief they won't catch the virus or a contention that no one should be able to demand they get inoculated, millions of Americans remain unvaccinated.
Some state governors, mostly conservative Republicans, have urged their residents to get vaccinated but balked at mandating the inoculations or requiring face masks in schools or other workplaces. That has led to numerous political and legal disputes, with some courts siding with local officials wanting to impose coronavirus rules opposed by governors in their states.
The spike in cases among Americans who have not been vaccinated includes an increasing number of young children who are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said cases among children soared to 750,000 from August 5 to September 2.
In addition to vaccines, Biden reiterated the need to enforce mask use across the country.
The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which regulates flights and airport safety in the United States, will double fines against those who refuse to mask on airlines.
Source: Voice of America