Updated Jul 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden weighing tailored vaccine mandates

Vice President Kamala Harris is seen wearing a mask during a meeting on Tuesday.

Vice President Kamala Harris resumed wearing a mask indoors on Tuesday. Photo: Ken Cedeno/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Biden administration officials are debating how to expand vaccine mandates for some federal civilian health care workers as they prepare to put more testing pressure — and requirements — on the rest of the federal workforce.

Why it matters: With the Delta variant surging across the country, officials are exploring ways to persuade or pressure Americans hesitant or downright opposed to getting a coronavirus vaccine.

  • The CDC announced Tuesday it was reinstating its recommendation for vaccinated people to wear masks in areas where the virus is substantially present, as well as all who'll be returning to K-12 schools.
  • Like they did Monday with their Veterans Affairs mandate, Biden administration officials are weighing the pros and cons of imposing strict vaccine mandates on select groups. No final decisions have been made.
  • For these vaccine mandates, which go beyond simple testing regimens, officials are currently focused on federal health care workers throughout the government, including those in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Indian Health Service.
  • The potential mandates would be phased in over time and require significant legal review.

Driving the news: President Biden told reporters on Tuesday a vaccine mandate for federal workers was “under consideration right now,” and on Thursday he'll speak directly to the challenge the Delta variant poses to Americans.

  • On Tuesday evening, CNN reported Biden will announce a requirement for all federal employees and contractors to either be vaccinated or submit to regular testing and mitigation efforts, citing a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

Between the lines: Administration officials do not consider onerous testing requirements to qualify as a vaccine mandate.

  • Instead, they see testing requirements as a means to convince workers to get vaccinated.
  • "While no decision has been finalized, attestation of vaccination ... or abiding by stringent COVID-19 protocols like mandatory mask-wearing ... and regular testing for federal employees is one option under strong consideration," said a source familiar with the considerations.

The intrigue: The internal conversation around a strict mandate for military personnel was more fraught.

  • The dominant internal view is that it's better to wait for an official request from the Pentagon — which is unlikely to come until the vaccines transition from emergency-use authorization to permanent approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Behind the scenes: Inside the administration, officials have been debating which categories of federal workers would be appropriate for vaccine mandates.

  • Health care workers at the VA were an obvious place to start, since hospitals around the country are already mandating vaccines for their staffs.

The big picture: Biden and his top aides have so far shied away from aggressively pressuring private businesses to mandate COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment.

  • They'd welcome private companies mandating vaccines but prefer that companies come to that decision themselves, according to two sources familiar with the internal conversations.
  • Biden’s advisers are eager to avoid looking too heavy-handed with private companies.
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