The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s six-step covid strategy does not go far enough to compel vaccinations

President Biden delivers remarks concerning the coronavirus pandemic on Sept. 9. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

An earlier version of this column misstated the percentage of Americans who are fully vaccinated. This version has been updated.

President Biden’s much-hyped new strategy for fighting covid-19 is a tepid half-measure that falls short of the dramatic reset the country needs. The six-pronged strategy announced on Thursday can be summarized as “more of the same” — these are good steps in the right direction, but they’re not enough to get the job done.

The biggest problem with Biden’s plan is that it does not go nearly far enough toward compelling vaccinations. Only 54 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of first-time vaccinations is falling, even as the delta variant is overwhelming hospitals in many places and more than 1,500 Americans are dying every day.

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Biden needs to acknowledge that we have reached the end of the line when it comes to asking individuals to get vaccinated. We’ve tried education, incentives and appealing to people’s patriotic duty. It’s not working. Now is the time for mandates, with the federal government using the full extent of its authority.

It is excellent that the Biden administration will require all federal workers to get vaccinated. I also like that it will be tying Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement money to hospitals mandating health-care workers to be inoculated. In addition, the White House is directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop a rule that says all employers with 100 or more workers must require either vaccinations or weekly testing.

But the administration can and must go much further. For starters, why didn’t Biden announce that he will mandate vaccinations for plane and train travel? The federal government has authority over interstate travel, and it already uses this power to require that masks are worn in airports and on planes and trains. Requiring vaccinations for those eligible for them will make travel safer, but that’s not the primary reason for taking the step. The Biden administration needs to make clear that there are consequences to remaining unvaccinated. If you want the privilege of traveling, you need to do your part and get vaccinated.

Similarly, the White House should urge businesses to implement “no vaccine, no service” rules. San Francisco and New York have been out front by requiring vaccines to enter indoor restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues. The president should support these efforts by providing financial incentives to jurisdictions and businesses with such mandates and encouraging vaccinated Americans to preferentially frequent these establishments.

In addition, while I appreciate the call for teachers to be vaccinated, I wish that all children 12 and older would be required, as well. There are mandates for childhood immunizations in every state. The coronavirus vaccine should be no different.

For vaccine mandates to succeed, they must be accompanied by a reliable and secure method for verifying proof of vaccination. Israel has long used the government-issued Green Pass to prove immunity, and the European Union has introduced a digital covid-19 certificate across all 27 member nations, as well as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. It’s shameful that all the United States can come up with is a paper CDC card. Verification of vaccination should be taken just as seriously as, say, going through a TSA checkpoint at the airport. When asked for your ID, you can’t just produce an easily forged piece of paper. Neither should that be sufficient to prove that you’re immunized against a potentially deadly disease.

Some private entities have developed health passes that display a person’s vaccine status and the date of their last negative test. At very least, the Biden administration should use these more secure passes for federal employees. I hold out hope that administration officials will change their minds about vaccine passports — as I and many others have — and finally get behind a national vaccine verification system.

Masks are one more area in which Biden’s leadership is desperately needed. More than a month ago, the CDC recommended that indoor masking return in areas of substantial or high transmission, which is most of the country, yet most states and locales have not reinstated this rule. Some places will still resist mask mandates, but others could be swayed if the federal government took a stronger stance — including the president’s home state of Delaware. Biden should urge all governors, mayors and business leaders to reinstitute indoor mask mandates until vaccination rates are higher and the number of cases drops significantly.

The administration has made tremendous progress in combating the pandemic, but much of its hard-won gains were erased because too many Americans chose not to get vaccinated. It needs to recognize that tinkering around the edges won’t stop the spread of covid-19. The time for cajoling is over, and it’s up to Biden to set the tone — and make it as difficult as his authority permits for Americans to remain unvaccinated.