SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
More workers are going to have to get vaccinated for COVID-19. That's what President Biden is set to announce in a speech this afternoon. The White House sees these new rules as a way to contain the spread of the virus. That's with case numbers sky-high due to the delta variant and with hospitals grappling with yet another wave of patients. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin are both here to tell us more about what to expect from the speech this afternoon.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
DETROW: So, Tam, what do we expect to hear from the president?
KEITH: Selena and I listened in on a preview of the plan today with a senior administration official, and it's a series of measures that build on things the administration has announced before, in many cases making them tougher. The idea is to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and they have moved from persuasion to mandates in a couple of significant ways. Federal workers and contractors will no longer have the option to skip the vaccine and get tested instead. With very limited exceptions, vaccines will now be required.
The federal government is the country's largest employer, so that could be significant. But even more significant is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA is going to issue an emergency order saying that private employers with 100 or more workers will have to require vaccination or weekly testing. This will affect more than 80 million workers.
DETROW: This feels a long way from the free beer offers of this summer, but you mentioned private employers. Does the federal government have that power?
KEITH: Yeah. So I spoke with Brett Coburn. He's a labor and employment attorney in Atlanta who's been advising employers on COVID mandates. And he said companies do take orders from OSHA very seriously. And in his words, this is a big, big change.
BRETT COBURN: I'm sure there will be a lot of employers who chafe at this for a variety of reasons. But some employers, I think, may welcome it - right? - because it kind of takes it out of their hands to some extent to say, sorry, OSHA said we have to do this. And we have to follow what OSHA tells us. The CDC gives us guidelines. OSHA gives us rules, right? And that's a really important distinction.
KEITH: Yeah. And a lot of employers have been looking for a signal. This is a signal, though he says even before the announcement, he had been hearing from an increasing number of companies looking to put vaccine requirements in place. This is likely to accelerate that. I will say, though, there are still a lot of questions about exactly how this will roll out and how long it will take to ramp up.
DETROW: So, Selena, the Biden administration is also expanding requirements for certain health care workers. How does that work?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So the White House is set to require that any health facility that receives funding for Medicare or Medicaid mandate vaccination for staff. And if that sounds familiar, it's because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently announced a rule for nursing home staff. Although that rule hasn't come out yet, that seems to be an extension of that. So it would apply to pretty much every hospital in the country. The White House estimates it would affect 17 million health care workers. Medicare and Medicaid funding is a huge part of many hospitals' budgets, so this is a big lever that the federal government has.
I talked to Dave Dillon today. He is a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, and he said this requirement might kind of even things out. Some hospitals are already doing this in areas that are more accepting of vaccinations. This might get the others on board. And he said that vaccine requirements for health care workers was really nothing new.
DAVE DILLON: Individuals that work at hospitals - at many hospitals are required to get an influenza vaccination, a potential hepatitis vaccination because these are the kind of things that you do to protect vulnerable patients at the frontlines of care.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I should mention that there was one vaccine requirement that was notably absent from this plan, and that is a requirement for air travelers. This is something that other countries have announced. This plan just reiterates a mask requirement and that they will double fines, although some reports suggest those fines are barely ever enforced anyway.
DETROW: What about testing? I mean, one big difference from last year is that rapid tests are being sold in stores, but they're still really hard to find.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that's true. There aren't really nearly enough tests, and they're not nearly cheap enough to enable people to rapidly get tested quickly and easily on a routine basis. And test positivity is also really high again, which indicates the country isn't nearly doing enough testing. So on this front, the administration plans to stockpile 2 billion rapid tests and make them available in prisons and homeless shelters and other congregate facilities and also send millions more to food banks and community health centers.
And they're planning to announce that Walmart, Amazon and Kroger will be selling these rapid tests at cost for the next three months, so they'll be discounted by up to 35% by the end of this week. Although that still really isn't enough for people to really test themselves frequently, it would be, like, maybe $17 for two tests. And it doesn't address the issue of how hard it can be to find a rapid test in a lot of places. Some testing manufacturers scaled down in the spring, when it looked like the pandemic was winding down. It'll take time for them to ramp up again.
DETROW: Yeah. And, Tam, let's shift to the politics just for a moment. There has been a lot of buildup to the speech by the White House. What are the politics around this moment and the speech in particular?
KEITH: Yeah. President Biden, as we all know, was elected in part on a promise to get the pandemic under control. He got a lot of praise early on for the fast rollout of vaccines two months ago. As you alluded to before, the president was celebrating what looked like the nation's independence from COVID. New cases were way down. People were getting back to normal life. And that is right around the time vaccination efforts hit a wall and the delta variant surged. Most Americans do still approve of his handling overall of the pandemic. But in the month of August, the NPR News/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found approval for Biden's handling of the pandemic fell nine points. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted at today's briefing that this, though, is not about politics. This will not be a political speech from the president.
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JEN PSAKI: What we can acknowledge and you've seen in a lot of these polls is that the No. 1 issue, No. 2 issue, No. 3 issue for many Americans is COVID and what we're doing.
KEITH: A slim majority of Americans actually approve of employer mandates. They also approve of masks in schools and in crowded indoor spaces. But the people most unlikely to be vaccinated - the most people - the people most likely to be unvaccinated are least likely to want to do anything that President Biden or his administration is telling them to do.
DETROW: Yeah, yeah. That's NPR's Tamara Keith as well as Selena Simmons-Duffin.
Thanks to both of you.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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