The Biden government moved forward on several fronts Wednesday to fight back against the burgeoning Delta variant of the coronavirus, urgently recommending booster shots to most vaccinated Americans, and using federal leverage to force nursing homes to vaccinate their employees.
In remarks from the East Room of the White House, President Biden also directed his Secretary of Education “to use all his powers and legal action, if any” to prevent states from banning universal masking in classrooms.
This move includes the deployment of the department’s civil rights division and is designed to escalate a battle between Mr Biden and Republican governors preventing local school districts from asking for masks to protect against the virus.
The dramatic policy shifts reflect government concerns that the Delta variant will undo its hard-won strides against the pandemic and bring the nation back to where it was earlier this year.
“The Delta Virus threat remains real, but we are prepared, we have the tools, we can do this,” Biden said in the East Room, adding, “This is no time to lose our vigilance.”
In the past, Mr Biden has been reluctant to use the power of the federal government to withhold federal funds or intervene in school policies to order protective measures or enforce more vaccinations. That changed, however, on Wednesday when he said his government would make vaccination of employees a requirement for nursing homes in order to receive Medicare and Medicaid funding. Officials said the decision will affect more than 15,000 nursing homes employing 1.3 million workers.
Many Americans will be hardest hit by the booster strategy. The government plans to offer third vaccinations starting September 20, for adults who received the Pfizer BioNTech or Moderna vaccines eight months after the second dose. About 150 million Americans have been fully immunized with either of these two vaccines.
Officials stressed that the Food and Drug Administration has yet to make a final decision on whether third shots are safe and effective – a decision expected in the coming weeks.
On Wednesday afternoon, the president said his government had been planning the possibility of a booster for months. The extra shots “will make you safer for longer,” he said.
“The best way to protect ourselves from new varieties that might emerge is to have every adult get a booster dose,” he said, adding that anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated should get their vaccination quickly.
Senior federal officials said the booster strategy was due to new data showing that the vaccine’s effectiveness against infections and minor illnesses decreased over time. They expressed concern that vaccine protection against serious illnesses could also decline in the coming months.
“Here’s What You Need to Know: If you are fully vaccinated you still have high levels of protection from the worst effects of Covid-19 – serious illness, hospitalization and death,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy, the general surgeon. “We don’t recommend going out today and getting a booster.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed the reporting.