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'You Don't Have To Die': In Speech, Biden Described Plan To Get Americans Vaccinated

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are some alarming new trends in this pandemic in the U.S. The contagious delta variant is now dominant. Cases have surged at a time when the pace of vaccinations has been stalling. Today President Biden talked about how he plans to turn all of that around. He called it straight talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know this is hard to hear. I know it's frustrating. I know it's exhausting to think we're still in this fight. And I know we hoped this would be a simple, straightforward line without problems or new challenges. But that isn't real life.

CHANG: NPR's Franco Ordoñez joins me now from the White House.

Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So you were in the room today. What struck you about what the president said and how he made his case?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he walked out wearing his mask. He got to the podium and somewhat dramatically pulled it off and held it out in front of him to make, you know, this point that, you know, this was not the place where he wanted to be. You know, for a long time, he's been urging people to go get the shot. And the White House has laid out all kinds of ways to make it easier, but things have stalled. And there are questions, and there are concerns, and there's also a lot of resistance.

And in this speech, he was very direct. You know, he noted the progress that deaths were way down from the winter but that some 300 to 400 people were dying a day amid this new surge with the delta variant. And he laid out the stakes, and he did so very plainly and said that in order to get this under control, more people need to get vaccinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This is an American tragedy. People are dying and will die who don't have to die. If you're out there unvaccinated, you don't have to die.

ORDOÑEZ: And I do want to make the note that he did not blame people or demonize anyone or even really express much frustration. Instead, he made the case that it wasn't political and even reached across the aisle to thank Republicans who have spoken publicly of vaccinations.

CHANG: So what did President Biden say about how he hopes to turn all of this around, this rise in cases?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he said it's time to start imposing some requirements to get vaccinated. He's going to require civilian federal employees and contractors to either get vaccinated - and if they don't, they'll have to wear masks and get tested once or twice a week. This applies to some 4 million people who work for the government. And I'll just note that it's not clear how many federal workers are currently unvaccinated.

CHANG: But wait. Will this apply to the military?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he's directing the Department of Defense to look at how and when to do this for people who serve. The timing is unclear. He said at some point, though, that COVID-19 vaccines will be added to the list of mandatory vaccinations for members of the military.

CHANG: OK, so do you think we could see further directives? Like, what else could Biden do?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, he said that he's not sure if it would be legal for the government to mandate that everyone get the vaccine. But he is going to encourage other businesses to do so, to take similar steps. And he's not done with incentives. He said the government will reimburse businesses that give people time off work to get themselves and their family members vaccinated. And he said he wants states and local governments to give $100 to everyone who gets the shot.

CHANG: Not bad - and finally, you know, I'm just wondering; how important do you think it is, politically speaking, for the president to get this message right today?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, he was elected in part on his promise to fix this, and we're at a critical moment. People are exhausted from the pandemic, and a surge of cases is discouraging. Just when life and business was starting to come back, this surge in cases and the new mask guidelines feels like we're sliding back. Here was his message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This is no time to be despondent and let our guard down. We just need to finish the job with science, with facts, with the truth.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, to make his final point, he pulled out a card he carries with him from his pocket, a daily total of the number of people who died from the virus - more than 609,000 deaths in the U.S.. And he said it's time to dig in.

CHANG: That is NPR's Franco Ordoñez.

Thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.