WASHINGTON (AP) — In his most forceful pandemic actions and words, President Joe Biden 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 Thursday, 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.
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Three organizations that encourage young adults to become involved in politics and civic action filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging new Montana laws they say will stifle the youth vote.
Montana Youth Action, the Forward Montana Foundation and the Montana Public Interest Research Group filed the lawsuit in state district court in Billings against Christi Jacobsen in her capacity as secretary of state.
They are challenging laws that limit the use of student ID cards for voter registration and identification and another that eliminates Election Day voter registration. They are also challenging a law that denies absentee ballots to people who have registered and will be old enough to vote in the upcoming election, but have not yet turned 18 when absentee ballots are issued.
The organizations argue the new bills are “voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young,” and serve no compelling government interest.
“The laws at issue here were passed for no reason other than the professed bogeyman of voter fraud, for which legislators did not and could no produce evidence,'' the complaint states.
Native American voting rights groups and the Montana Democratic Party have also challenged voting laws, including the one ending Election Day registration.
“The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a secretary of state that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures,'' Jacobsen has said.
PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona's first sports betting operations officially opened for business Thursday in time for the start of the NFL season, with live wagers taken on college and professional sports online and at two retail locations in Phoenix.
Taking in-person bets in the morning were the FanDuel Sportsbook at the downtown Phoenix arena where the Phoenix Suns play and temporary betting windows just down the street at the Arizona Diamondbacks' Chase Field run by Caesars Entertainment. Several companies also began accepting online bets.
“Used to go to Vegas to do this,'' said a pumped up Emil Stefan, 59, after placing a bet at the Caesars window. “This saves us a lot of money, time and fuel to do it here.''
At midday, lines were short but a steady stream of customers placed bets at the Chase Field betting windows. Down the street at the Suns arena, about a dozen men watched giant screens playing the U.S. Open tennis tournament, phones in hand. Several dozen others milled around, sipped beer, poured over odds sheets or placed wagers at betting windows or electronic machines.
About 40 people were lined up outside when the sportsbook opened, and crowds were in and out all day, said Jeff Lowich, FanDuel senior director for retail operations.
The betting windows were made possible by a new law enacted by the Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey last spring. Gambling, other than old-school contests like Bingo run for charities, was banned outside of casinos run by Native American tribes before the law was passed.
Arizona joins more than half the states in allowing betting on sports, just three years after it was allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state hopes to pull in tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue from legalized gambling.
It's likely to be lucrative for the teams and gambling companies as well, some of which aggressively advertised on television and social media before Thursday's launch.
The governor's office negotiated new agreements with the tribes to allow betting on live and fantasy sports.
In exchange, the tribes were allowed to expand their table game and slot machine offerings and run their own sportsbooks at their casinos.
Ten tribes also won licenses to take sports bets online. Online fantasy sports wagering became legal late last month. Before that, Arizona was one of the few states where it was still banned.
But it is the professional teams that were the first to open actual retail location sportsbooks, according to the state Department of Gaming, because a needed addendum to the tribal gaming compacts has not been finalized.
Despite the availability of online betting, Ian Johnson of Phoenix said he likes placing bets in person because if he wins, he can collect his cash immediately.
“I don't think I'm going to Vegas anymore,'' said Johnson, 38, who works in software sales.
The Caesars sportsbook opened in temporary space using five of the Diamondbacks ticketing windows at Chase Field. Team officials said it's the first Major League Baseball stadium where fans can place in-person bets. The Diamondbacks plan to open a more permanent space early next year.
The Footprint Center — home of the Suns, Phoenix Mercury and Arizona Rattlers football team — hosts FanDuel Sportsbook, where Ducey and retired Suns players Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson, and FanDuel executives attended a ceremony followed by an official watch party for the NFL season opener featuring the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ahead of kickoff.
The state law allowed licenses for up to 10 professional sports teams and eight were awarded last month, and they and tribes can partner with sportsbooks. The team licenses allow retail and online betting.
In many ways, the online licenses are much more valuable than being able to run a traditional “sportsbook'' at a tribal casino or at or near a professional sports team's stadium.
That's because online operations can run around the clock with little overhead and aren't limited to gamblers physically being at a venue.