▶ Watch Video: Biden ramps up vaccine effort with federal mandate

Washington — President Biden called on state and local governments to use COVID-19 relief funds to give $100 to residents who get vaccinated and said federal workers will have to show proof of vaccination or face new restrictions in the workplace, including complying with weekly testing. 

“We are not fully out of the woods yet. Because what is happening in America right now is a pandemic, a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Mr. Biden said in a speech at the White House on Thursday. “Let me say that again. It’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” 

The new rules for the federal workers and the call for cash payments are part of a broader push by the administration to get more Americans vaccinated as the Delta variant of the coronavirus fuels an increase in new infections nationwide. The vast majority of COVID-19 cases are still among the unvaccinated, and the Biden administration says 97% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients haven’t gotten their shots. 

“Look, this is not about red states and blue states. It’s literally about life and death,” the president said as he pleaded with Americans to get vaccinated. 

The federal government isn’t authorizing new funding for vaccination incentives. Instead, the White House is asking states, localities and territories to use leftover funding from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March to cover the cash payments. 

“I know that paying people that get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have gotten vaccinated already,” Mr. Biden said. “But here’s the deal — if incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them. We all benefit if we can get more people vaccinated.”  

President Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations in the East Room of the White House on July 29, 2021.

SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The White House pointed to the success of similar vaccine incentive programs in states like Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado, and cited research indicating that a third of unvaccinated Americans said cash payments would make them more likely to get their shots.

All federal workers and onsite contractors will be asked to confirm their vaccination status, the president said. Anyone who is not fully vaccinated will be required to wear a mask on the job, comply with weekly or twice weekly testing, and stay physically distant from all other employees. The federal government employs more than 2 million people in its civilian workforce, apart from the military. 

“Every day, more businesses are implementing their own vaccine mandates,” Mr. Biden said. “The Justice Department has made it clear that it is legal to require COVID-19 vaccines. We all want our lives to get back to normal, and fully vaccinated workplaces will make that happen more quickly and more successfully. We all know that in our gut. With incentives and mandates, we can make a huge difference and save a lot of lives.” 

Mr. Biden said he is directing the defense secretary to look into how and when the military will add the COVID-19 vaccine to the long list of required vaccinations for military members. 

The Department of Defense cannot mandate the use of a vaccine that’s approved for emergency use, as all three U.S. vaccines are, but the president has the authority to waive this restriction. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said getting vaccinated is currently voluntary for service members, but the Pentagon is encouraging all troops to get their shots. At least 70% of active duty service members have received the first dose and 62% are fully vaccinated.

After his speech, the president took questions from reporters, including a question on the possibility of broader vaccine mandates. 

“I asked the Justice Department to determine whether they’re able to do that legally, and they can. Local communities can do that, local businesses can do that,” the president said. “It’s still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country. I don’t know that.”

As part of the renewed vaccination effort, Mr. Biden said small- and medium-sized businesses will be eligible to be reimbursed for offering employees paid time off to get themselves or family members vaccinated. He also said the administration is ramping up efforts to vaccinate students over the age of 12 before the beginning of the new school year. 

Roughly 70% of American adults have received at least one dose of their coronavirus vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Biden administration has been pushing those who have not yet received their shots to do so. On Wednesday, more than 754,000 doses of the vaccines were administered, including 498,000 newly vaccinated people, according to Cyrus Shahpar, the White House’s COVID-19 data director.

Many state and local leaders announced this week they would be reinstating mitigation measures, and some imposed new vaccine requirements for public workers amid a rise in new coronavirus infections. Nearly all of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, White House officials said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday it is requiring all medical personnel to get their COVID-19 shots, and a coalition of major medical organizations is pushing for mandatory vaccinations for all U.S. health care workers. California and New York City are also requiring all state and city employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo frequent testing.