Biden's vaccine mandate to be enforced after the New Year, offering U.S. companies relief

By Nandita Bose, David Shepardson and Ahmed Aboulenein 

  WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will begin enforcing his mandate that private-sector workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly starting Jan. 4, in a reprieve to companies struggling with labor shortages during the crucial U.S. holiday season. 

  U.S. officials on Thursday also said a requirement that federal contractors be vaccinated was moved back a month to the same date. Millions of workers in healthcare facilities and nursing homes participating in Medicare and Medicaid will need to get their shots by Jan. 4 as well. 

  Biden established the requirements to raise vaccination rates and get more people back to work. But in numerous meetings with companies and industry groups representing retailers, logistics companies, construction workers, executives asked the administration to delay the implementation deadline after the New Year, citing concerns about worker shortages. 

  Employers will also not be required to provide or pay for tests and the rule offers medical and religious exemptions. 

  Failure to comply with the mandate will result in an approximately $14,000 fine per violation with a scale that increases with several violations, senior administration officials said. They did not offer clarity on whether workers will be fired if they refuse to get the shot or tested. 

  "It is important to understand that there are still so many workers who are not protected and remain at risk from being seriously ill or dying from COVID-19," said a senior administration official. 

  The administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity. 

  Biden initially set a deadline for 70% of U.S. adults to get at least one shot by July 4, but the White House missed the deadline as it underestimated growing anti-vaccine sentiment in the country fueled by right-wing talk show hosts, anti-vaxxers, online disinformation campaigns and resistance from Republican lawmakers. 

  Biden announced his mandate in September after his administration's efforts reached a breaking-point as the country was struggling to control the virus spread. 

  A large swath of the population was refusing to accept free vaccinations despite a major rollout and incentive campaign from the administration involving 42,000 pharmacies, dozens of mass vaccination sites, free rides and free beer. 

  In many parts of the United States, it worked. Millions lined up for shots, and the vaccination rate increased nationwide with latest data showing 70% of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated and 80% have received at least one shot. 

  But an average of 1,100 Americans are still dying daily from COVID-19, according to the latest U.S. data, the vast majority of them unvaccinated. The coronavirus has killed more than 745,000 Americans. 

  The mandate is likely to unleash https://www.reuters.com/world/us/bidens-covid-19-strategy-thwarted-by-anti-vaxxers-delta-variant-2021-07-29 a frenzied legal battle that will hinge on a rarely used law and questions over federal power and authority over healthcare. 

  "The new emergency temporary standard is well within OSHA's authority under the law…there is a well established legal precedent for OSHA's authority," a senior administration official said, explaining the legal authority of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue the rule. 

  The mandate will apply to businesses with 100 or more employees and could affect roughly 84 million workers nationwide, the White House estimates. Goldman Sachs economists estimate that as few as 12 million people would be vaccinated as a result of the mandate. 

  Along with Biden's executive order that requires all federal workers and contractors be vaccinated, the rules cover 100 million people, about two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, the White House estimates. 

  The rule for healthcare workers covers 17 million employees across 76,000 healthcare facilities even though a majority of them are already vaccinated, data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shows. 

  The administration estimates the rule will prevent over 250,000 hospitalizations and save thousands of lives during the six months after it is implemented. 

  (Reporting by Nandita Bose, David Shepardson and Ahmed Aboulenein in Washington and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Chris Sanders & Shri Navaratnam) 

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