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Biden touts vaccine mandates on trip to Chicago area

President Biden listens on a tour of a Microsoft data center.
President Biden listens on a tour of a Microsoft data center that’s under construction in Elk Grove Village, Ill., on Thursday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Despite a backlash from Republicans, President Biden is touting vaccine requirements as a path out of the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting a construction site here on Thursday where workers are being prodded to get the shot before they can wield a drill or swing a hammer.

The president’s focus is a reflection of his administration’s conclusion that forceful pressure — from either the federal government or private employers — is proving more effective than persuasion with the tens of millions of Americans who remain unwilling to be vaccinated.

“There is no other way to beat the pandemic than to get the vast majority of Americans vaccinated,” Biden said as he toured a data center under construction. “It’s as simple as that.”

Grappling with a nation divided over COVID, federal officials are reworking how they will distribute vaccines and treatments.

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He added that “vaccination requirements are tough medicine” but emphasized that “they’re game-changing for our country,” saving people’s lives and paving the way for a stronger economic recovery.

Biden conceded that he didn’t want to push mandates, saying “that wasn’t my first instinct.” However, simply making enough vaccines available and sharing information about their safety and effectiveness didn’t result in enough people getting their shots.

More than 700,000 Americans have died in the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University, with more perishing this year than last, thanks to the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

The company building the Microsoft data center here, Clayco, is one of the largest construction firms in the Midwest, and it announced that workers will need to be vaccinated or face regular testing.

“We’re making sure that everyone goes home to their loved ones,” said Jerry Wenzel, a senior operations manager for the company.

According to the White House, vaccination requirements are already in place at 25% of businesses and 40% of hospitals. In addition, higher-education institutions that serve 37% of all graduate and undergraduate students have implemented requirements.

White House aides have chafed at news reports that focus on the number of people who have quit their jobs rather than be vaccinated, and they’re quick to note that the vast majority of people facing mandates from their employers have complied with the requirement.

For example, at United Airlines, more than 99% of workers have been vaccinated, up from 59% when its mandate took effect. The company closed the gap in only two months.

President Biden spoke from the White House the morning after federal regulators endorsed COVID-19 booster shots for many Americans.

Biden has increased pressure from Washington as well. He’s requiring all federal government employees and contractors to be vaccinated.

He also directed the Department of Labor to develop a regulation requiring employees to be vaccinated or tested regularly if their company has at least 100 workers. Administration officials have not said when the rule will be released and implemented.

The White House estimates that 67 million eligible Americans have yet to get their shots, down from 95 million in late July, when Biden announced his initial round of vaccine requirements for federal workers.

A poll released last month by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research said that 51% of Americans back Biden’s requirement, compared with only 34% who disapprove. But opinions are also split along party lines. Support stands at 77% among Democrats and only 27% among Republicans.

About 56% of Americans are fully vaccinated, higher than the global average but behind many other developed nations. It’s a striking shortfall because the U.S. began its vaccination campaign at a rapid pace, only to become bogged down when confronting entrenched hesitancy among those who have not wanted to get their shots.

There are some signs that the latest wave of cases, which was fueled by the more contagious Delta variant, has started to recede. The average number of cases per day has dropped 12% since the previous week, and hospitalizations are down 14%. Roughly 1,400 people are dying per day.


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