by Matthew Rusling
U.S. President Joe Biden is pushing harder on vaccines and masks as COVID-19 cases are surging across the country due to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to increase in most of the United States, especially in communities with lower vaccination coverage, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a weekly report on Friday.
The outlook is especially dire in the South. The states of Florida and Louisiana recently set seven-day case records, according a report by The New York Times. In Florida, coronavirus hospitalizations are roughly equal to their previous peak from last summer. In Louisiana, intensive care units are strained and young adults are contracting serious cases of the virus.
PUSHING FOR MASKS, VACCINES
The rise in COVID-19 cases has prompted the CDC to issue new guidelines on mask wearing, and some areas are returning to restrictions seen last year during the height of the pandemic.
Mask wearing has been a subject of controversy in the United States for more than a year, with a significant chunk of the population refusing to wear masks for many different reasons. Some believe such choices are up to the individual, others believe - against current data - that masks do not necessarily protect against the virus.
Recent weeks have also seen a marked increase in the number of private sector companies promoting vaccinations for those who want to return to the office.
In a sharp about face of previous statements, recent days saw Biden say he would like to see companies move toward mandates.
Biden announced in recent days that all federal workers must be vaccinated or be required to wear masks and undergo regular testing.
Biden also said he believes more cities and states should institute rules like those in New York City, where customers at restaurants, gyms and other venues are required to be vaccinated.
Many Americans refuse to get the jab in the belief that the side effects will be worse than COVID-19 itself. Others believe conspiracy theories about the vaccines, which are widely circulated on social media.
As of Friday, 50 percent of the U.S. population - more than 165.9 million people - had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Darrell West told Xinhua: "Many public and private sector organizations have instituted mask and vaccine requirements."
"Some leaders oppose this but they are in states with low vaccination rates and high COVID rates," West said.
An article published on Yalemedicine.org, one of Yale University's websites, said people who are fully vaccinated "appear to have strong protection against Delta compared to those who aren't... But anyone who is unvaccinated and not practicing preventive strategies is at high risk for infection by the new variant."
CRITICS PUSH BACK
As an increased number of cities call for employee vaccinations, they are seeing pushback from some labor unions.
New York unions were outraged last week after the city implemented employee vaccination requirements.
"We are absolutely against an absolute mandate to vaccinate everyone," said Henry Garrido, executive of New York's health union.
The New York Fire Department (FDNY) also expressed anger about the possibility of weekly COVID-19 testing paid for by employees.
"This testing will not be done on our own time or our own dime," FDNY union president Andrew Ansbro said. "If the city wants this, they can make it possible and they can pay for it."
Clay Ramsay, a researcher at the center for international and security studies at the University of Maryland, told Xinhua the Biden administration has two choices: not to take requirements much beyond what it's already done, or try out a new requirement and wait to see what the judicial system does.
The administration "doesn't like to launch things that it believes put the courts into a real quandary and are hard to support before a judge," Ramsay said.
"However, ... sometimes Biden may go ahead in this fashion," Ramsay said.
Conservative media also voiced strong opposition to any sort of mandate, arguing that the pandemic is over in the United States.
Fox News host Kayleigh McEnany, also press secretary for former President Donald Trump, said earlier this week, "We're in a different stage of the pandemic now. We don't need mandates. We don't need masks. People are getting vaccinated."
The administration is "slowly tiptoeing" toward vaccine mandates, "with Joe Biden tacitly approving the New York mandate that you have to be vaccinated to even eat at a restaurant," McEnany said on Fox News.
She called such moves "ridiculous" and "dictatorial."
Colleen Dudley, an office manager in the U.S. state of New Jersey in her 50s, told Xinhua that mask mandates should not come from the federal government.
"It should be up to the state health departments," she said.
As of Saturday afternoon, more than 616,000 Americans have died since the virus hit the United States, and 35.7 million have been infected, showed a tally by the Johns Hopkins University.