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Biden mandates Covid vaccine for federal employees and removes the option to get tested instead

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden will sign an executive order requiring federal employees to be fully vaccinated against coronavirus within 75 days or to face possible disciplinary action as the US struggles to get the highly contagious variant of Delta under control.

"We think that gives people more than enough time to start and complete their vaccination series," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. "If a federal employee fails to comply, they will go through the standard HR process, which includes counseling, and face progressive disciplinary action."

The implementing regulation will also extend to contractors who work with the US. According to the Office of Personnel Management, an estimated 2.1 million civilians work for the federal government. The total workforce of the federal government, including the military, is about 4.2 million people.

Biden will officially announce the mandatory vaccination and other measures to combat the pandemic during a speech scheduled for 5 p.m. ET tonight. The compulsory vaccination does not apply to the legislature and the judiciary of the federal government.

Earlier this year, Biden directed all federal employees to prove their coronavirus vaccination status or to undergo a series of strict safety protocols. Thursday's order removes the option for most workers to get tested instead, although certain exceptions apply.

"There will be limited exceptions for legally recognized reasons such as disability or religious objections," said Psaki.

Nurses remove vaccine doses from a vial while Maryland residents receive their second dose of Moderna coronavirus vaccine at the Cameron Grove Community Center on March 25, 2021 in Bowie, Maryland.

Win McNamee | Getty Images

Biden's decision comes as his government seeks ways to tackle the mutating virus. His campaign to bring the pandemic under control by the summer has largely failed due to opposition to vaccinations from a significant portion of the US population. Infections and deaths are increasing in people who have not been vaccinated.

According to a CNBC analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University, there are currently an average of 151,000 new Covid cases per day in the US, far more than the 36,000 cases at that time in the last year before vaccines were available. Almost 1,500 people die on average from Covid every day.

Overall, 62% of the US population has received at least one dose of a vaccine – Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson – while 53% are fully vaccinated.

"Our overall goal here is to reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans – at this point there are of course 80 million unvaccinated Americans," said Psaki. "We want to reduce this number, reduce hospital stays and deaths and enable our children to go to school safely."

"Obviously the federal workforce is one of the largest in the country and we want to be a role model for what we think other companies and organizations across the country should be doing," said Psaki.

A broader federal mandate could encourage state governments to follow suit, said Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policies at the Kaiser Family Foundation. There is currently some sort of vaccine mandate in place for government or health workers in about 20 states, though many opt for people who want to have regular tests instead.

In July, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it would order its health care workers to be vaccinated. This makes it the first federal authority to issue such a mandate. Veteran Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough described the new measure as "the best way to protect veterans".

A month later, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer and BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, the first in the United States to receive the coveted award. The mRNA vaccine, marketed as Comirnaty, was on the US market under an emergency clearance granted by the FDA in December.

FDA approval was expected to give even more companies, schools, and universities across the country more confidence in accepting vaccine mandates.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 214 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been administered. Approximately 96 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated with Pfizer's two-dose vaccine.

After Pfizer was approved by the FDA, the Pentagon updated its health policy to require all U.S. soldiers and defense companies to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will continue to be administered under emergency clearances.

– CNBC's Kevin Breuninger contributed to this report from New York.

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