By Ernie Mundell and Robin Foster
WEDNESDAY, July 28, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- President Joe Biden is considering a mandate that would require all civilian federal employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine or submit to regular testing, masking and travel restrictions.
White House officials said Tuesday they would reveal more about the president's plans later this week, while Biden said he would deliver a speech on Thursday about "the next steps in our effort to get more Americans vaccinated," The New York Times reported.
The latest news illustrates the growing concern among top federal health officials about the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, but that concern must be balanced against the possibility that mandates could fuel further opposition to vaccination, officials told the Times.
The idea being debated is similar to a mandate New York City announced on Monday, which would require all 300,000 city employees to be vaccinated or to have to do weekly testing, officials told the Times.
It was not clear if Biden was planning to do the same with the military, although he does have the authority to do so, the Times said. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III has said he would not be comfortable with a vaccine mandate until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves COVID-19 vaccines.
The lack of full approval hasn't stopped mayors, chief executives, hospital administrators and college presidents around the country from requiring vaccinations. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that the state's 246,000 employees would have to be vaccinated by Aug. 2 or would be tested at least once a week.
With the Delta variant threatening a surge of cases in the fall, Biden must decide how far he should go to protect the American people from the coronavirus.
"You want to be careful," Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told the Times. "You don't want to put wind in the sails of the anti-vax movement."
But other experts say Biden must protect Americans first and foremost. Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told the Times that Biden should mandate vaccines to the degree that he can, among federal employees and the military.
"Sure, it will cause a backlash -- so what?" Offit said. "It isn't a personal choice. It's a choice for others. It's not an American's right to potentially catch and spread a fatal infection."
In the last six months, nearly half of the country -- 163.3 million people -- has been vaccinated, including 80 percent of those 65 and older, data from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. But tens of millions of people remain unprotected against what CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has described as one of the most contagious respiratory diseases known to scientists.
Experts say a refusal to get vaccinated puts others at risk — especially those who cannot get shots for medical reasons, or whose immune systems are too weak to respond to the vaccine.
"The ongoing transmission of this virus is in fact largely due to the unvaccinated," Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told the Times.
On Tuesday, Biden made his frustration with people who refuse to get a shot clear.
"The more we learn about this virus and the Delta variation, the more we have to be worried or concerned," Biden said. "And only one thing we know for sure: If those other 100 million people got vaccinated, we'd be in a very different world."