WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans in an effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant.
Speaking at the White House, Biden criticized the tens of millions of Americans who are not yet vaccinated, despite months of availability and incentives.
“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” he said. The unvaccinated minority “can cause a lot of damage, and they are.”
Republican leaders — and some union chiefs, too — said Biden was going too far in trying to muscle private companies and workers, a certain sign of legal challenges to come.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement that “Biden and the radical Democrats [have] thumbed their noses at the Constitution.” AFL-CIO National President Everett Kelley insisted that “changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate.”
On the other hand, there were strong words of praise for Biden’s efforts to get the nation vaccinated from the American Medical Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable — although no direct mention of his mandate for private companies.
The rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also must be fully vaccinated.
Biden also is requiring vaccination for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out. That covers several million more workers.
Biden announced the new requirements in a Thursday afternoon address from the White House as part of an “action plan” to address the latest rise in coronavirus cases and the stagnating pace of COVID-19 shots.
Just two months ago, Biden declared the nation’s “independence” from the virus. Now, despite more than 208 million Americans having at least one dose of the vaccines, the United States is seeing about 300% more new COVID-19 infections a day, about 21/2 times more hospitalizations, and nearly twice the number of deaths compared to the same time last year. About 80 million people remain unvaccinated.
“We are in the tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” Biden said.
After months of using promotions to drive the vaccination rate, Biden is taking a much firmer hand, as he blames people who have not yet received shots for the sharp rise in cases killing more than 1,000 people per day and imperiling a fragile economy.
In addition to the vaccination requirements, Biden moved to double federal fines for airline passengers who refuse to wear masks on flights or to maintain face-covering requirements on federal property in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
He announced that the government will work to increase the supply of virus tests, and that the White House has secured concessions from retailers, including Walmart, Amazon and Kroger, to sell at-home testing kits at cost beginning this week.
The administration also is sending additional federal support to assist schools in safely operating, including additional funding for testing. And Biden called for large entertainment venues and arenas to require vaccinations or proof of a negative test for entry.
The requirement for large companies to mandate vaccinations or weekly testing for employees will be enacted through a forthcoming rule from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that carries penalties of $14,000 per violation, an administration official said.
The rule will require that large companies provide paid time off for vaccination.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will extend a vaccination requirement issued earlier this summer — for nursing home staff — to other health care settings including hospitals, home-health agencies and dialysis centers.
Separately, the Department of Health and Human Services will require vaccinations in Head Start programs, as well as schools run by the Department of Defense and Bureau of Indian Education, affecting about 300,000 employees.
Biden’s order for executive branch workers and contractors includes exceptions for workers seeking religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, according to press secretary Jen Psaki. Federal workers who don’t comply will be referred to their agencies’ human resources departments for counseling and discipline, to include potential termination.
An AP-NORC poll conducted in August found 55% of Americans in favor of requiring government workers to be fully vaccinated, compared to 21% opposed. Similar majorities also backed vaccine mandates for health care workers, teachers working at K-12 schools and workers who interact with the public, as at restaurants and stores.
Biden has encouraged COVID-19 vaccine requirements in settings like schools, workplaces and university campuses. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to require all students 12 and older to be fully vaccinated in the nation’s second-largest school district.
More than 177 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but confirmed cases have shot up in recent weeks to an average of about 140,000 per day with about 1,000 deaths, according to CDC data.
Most of the spread — and the vast majority of severe illness and death — is occurring among those not yet fully vaccinated.
A Yeager Airport task force is seeking assistance from the public in identifying those who fly drones over or near airports or aim laser pointers into aircraft cockpits.
Both activities, which can result in injury or death, have been increasing in recent years nationally and across West Virginia.
“Last year, we had four laser strikes and three drone sightings at Yeager and, so far this year, we’ve had at least two laser strikes and a drone sighting,” said Russell Kennedy, operations manager at the Charleston airport.
Already this year, lasers pointed from the ground have entered the cockpits of 18 aircraft flying near eight West Virginia airports, according to a Federal Aviation Administration database.
From Jan. 1 through the end of July, laser strikes were reported by pilots flying near airports serving Charleston, Lewisburg, Parkersburg and Clarksburg three times at each location. Two laser strikes were reported at the Huntington and Elkins airports, while one was reported at Logan, according to the FAA.
A drone flying at the end of the runway nearest downtown Charleston earlier this year “came within a few feet of a training flight carrying an instructor and student,” during this year’s drone incident, Kennedy said.
“They were close enough to determine that the drone was a small replica of a Cessna-type aircraft,” Kennedy said.
Lasers directed into an airplane’s cockpit can temporarily blind or cause disabling eye injuries to pilots and other flight crew members, putting their lives and those of their passengers at risk.
“They pose a danger to both airport users and to our neighbors,” Kennedy said.
The number of laser strikes reported nationally has risen from 5,663 in 2018 to 6,136 in 2019 and 6,852 last year. Through July 31 of this year, 5,079 laser strikes had been reported, according to the FAA.
The high number of laser strikes is partly attributable to the easy availability of laser pointers, according to the FAA.
“Even the laser pointers you can buy at Pet Smart to tease your cats with are capable of temporarily blinding or injuring pilots,” Kennedy said.
The FAA can impose civil fines of up to $11,000 for a single laser strike violation, with penalties of up to $30,800 possible for those responsible for repeated laser strike violations.
Yeager’s Drone/Laser Strike Task Force includes airport police and security officers, general aviation pilots, licensed drone operators and FAA representatives.
Kennedy urged members of the public who see someone operating a drone on or near airport property or directing a laser pointer at aircraft flying in its vicinity to call 911 to report the event.
“We want to stop those who would place our passengers, our general aviation pilots or their families and friends at risk,” he said.
Ribfest kicked off Thursday at Dunbar’s Shawnee Park.
The event, in its 20th year, features barbecue vendors from across the country and, this year, offers free admission.
Food will be available for purchase. Festival attendees will be able to buy, try and vote on sauce and ribs from six award-winning vendors, including Dem 2 Brothers & A Grill.
Unvaccinated attendees are asked to wear a mask.
Ribfest continues through Sunday.
Ranking Senate Democrats voiced strong opposition Thursday to calls for a special session to pass legislation that would prohibit businesses, school systems, and colleges and universities from requiring vaccinations or other COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“At some point, somebody has to be the adult in the room and stand up for the right thing,” Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said of those who either are opting to do nothing during the current COVID-19 surge or are calling for anti-vaccination and/or anti-face mask mandates.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician, said he is concerned that many West Virginians are either trying to politicize COVID-19 or are choosing not to take the pandemic seriously.
“Our whole health care system is about to implode. The sense of crisis should be everywhere,” said Stollings, who gave examples of Boone Memorial Hospital patients having to be transported to facilities in Ohio and Michigan because intensive care units in West Virginia hospitals are reaching capacity.
Baldwin, Stollings and Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, held the Zoom teleconference Thursday to show solidarity with Senate Republicans who they said are quietly opposed to holding a COVID-19 special session.
Stollings said legislators have been inundated with calls and emails from those opposed to vaccines and face masks, adding, “Some of us have been contacted by members of the majority party, who have grave concerns if a special session is called.”
Gov. Jim Justice has shown no interest in calling a COVID-19 special session. It takes a four-fifths majority of members of the House of Delegates and Senate for the Legislature to petition itself into session.
About two-dozen Republican delegates sent a letter to Justice asking him to call a special session to limit public health mandates, while a handful of senators, most recently including Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, have made similar requests.
Baldwin concurred that there is bipartisan opposition to a special session in the Senate.
He said medical and public health professionals should be making decisions about the best ways to guide the state through the pandemic, not politicians.
Lindsay said he is astounded that some Republicans want to impose their will on private businesses, school systems, and colleges and universities, against the best advice of public health experts.
“All they’re trying to do is protect their customers and students,” he said.
Conversely, Stollings said he is upset Justice has not taken mitigation action during the current COVID-19 surge, as he did when the pandemic first hit West Virginia in the spring of 2020, including mandating masks and limiting the size of public gatherings.
“I wish the governor would listen to Clay Marsh [vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and state COVID-19 czar] more, and the public health people more,” Stollings said. “We need to resume indoor masking again, particularly in public schools.”
He added, “Instead of putting obstacles and hurtles in front of our public health system, we should be supportive and listen to the experts.”
Baldwin said it is time for Senate Democrats to speak out as COVID-19 rages across the state.
“The point of speaking out today is to take a stand to say, this is serious. People are in the hospital. They’re on ventilators. They’re dying,” he said.
As of Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Resources reported 22,972 active COVID-19 cases, with 1,744 new cases since Wednesday, and 3,189 deaths, up 20 from Wednesday. Hospitalization figures, which lag by one day, showed 813 West Virginians hospitalized, just five below the prior pandemic peak in January, with a record 252 in the ICU and 132 on ventilators.
Justice said Wednesday that West Virginia is leading the nation in the acceleration of COVID-19 cases, and Marsh said it will be another five to seven days, and possibly as long as 10 to 14 days, for the current surge to peak, and that hospitalizations and deaths will continue to increase for some time after that.
We can soon say goodbye to the West Virginia Power, and welcome back the Charleston Charlies — at least on a part-time basis.
Exactly what Charleston’s Atlantic League baseball franchise will be called on a full-time basis, though, will remain a mystery for a few more weeks.
This much we know: The team’s geographical identifier will no longer be West Virginia, as it’s been since 2005, when the Power’s debut coincided with the opening of Appalachian Power Park.
“We will also be the Charleston ... somethings,” said Chuck Domino, president of the West Virginia Power, in an announcement Thursday morning at Appalachian Power Park.
Domino said the new name, logos and other means of team branding will be unveiled Sept. 28, before the start of the second game of a doubleheader against the Long Island Ducks at Appalachian Power Park.
Without revealing the team’s new name, club officials offered only a hint Thursday as to what it might be: The team’s new name will be two words, five letters each, with the second five-letter word ending in the letter S.
Domino also announced that the team has launched a contest on its website, where it will award season tickets, along with a team jersey and hat, to the fan who can correctly guess the team’s new name before the Sept. 28 unveiling. In the event of multiple correct guesses, Domino said a random drawing will determine the winner of the contest.
“We want to have a name that represents the culture that we want to provide here at the stadium — a culture of fun, a culture of edginess, a little bit different,” Domino said.
Why not just announce the team’s new name Thursday?
“It’s to create a little momentum going into the Sept. 28 game, a little interest,” Domino said. “Quite frankly, just announcing [Thursday] would have been anti-climactic. I wanted to build a little interest before we announce it.”
Domino said the team will try to maintain a shroud of secrecy around the new name.
“Our players will not know their new name until they leave the field after playing the first game as the Charleston Charlies,” Domino said. “We will put the new uniforms in their lockers as they’re playing the first game.”
That shroud of secrecy, though, might have been pierced within hours of Thursday’s announcement.
Former Gazette-Mail sports writer Tom Bragg tweeted a link to the West Virginia secretary of state’s website showing the Power — operating as Charleston Professional Baseball Company LLC — had submitted a reservation, dated Sept. 2, for a DBA (doing business as) to trademark the name of the Charleston Dirty Birds. Andy Shea, the team’s owner, had his name attached to the document.
Domino replied with the following statement after that news hit social media. Under the heading “response to trademark hacking,” Domino said:
“It is typical that, as part of the process, whenever a team changes their identity that several identities are filed through the trademark office for clearances before a final decision is made. To cover all of our bases it is good to have more than one name that we really like in case one or more names result in red flags. We planned on filing for three names. Dirty Birds being one. In a perfect world all three make it through the process and you choose your favorite one.”
A second listing on the secretary of state’s website, dated Thursday, added a second DBA request for the Charleston River Toads. Then, later Thursday afternoon, the office’s website had a third listing: the Charleston Rough Necks.
In any event, Domino said the team will retain the Charleston Charlies moniker for Tuesday and Saturday games, as has been its practice during its first season in the Atlantic League. The Charlies name, popular among longtime Charleston baseball fans, hearkens back to the 1970s, when the city’s pro team was a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate (and later a Houston Astros affiliate) in Class AAA, pro baseball’s highest level of the minor leagues.
Team names for Charleston’s inclusion in professional baseball, dating back to 1910, include the Statesmen, Senators, Marlins, Indians, Charlies, Wheelers, Alley Cats and Power.
The team has hinted at the possibility of changing its name for months. More clues of an impending name change came when the team’s merchandise store at Appalachian Power Park started selling Power gear at buy-one-get-one-free pricing.
Domino, well-known in minor-league circles after 38 years in the business, is an old hand at team name changes and rebranding. Among the minor-league team name changes with which he’s been involved are the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the Akron Rubber Ducks, the Hartford Yard Goats and the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
It’s notable that all those changes involved two-word team names.
Earlier this summer, the Power posted a survey on its website about a possible name change, asking if people supported a name change and asking for suggestions. Domino said there were about 2,000 responses to the survey.
“Ninety percent of those responding said they wanted a name change,” Domino said. “Of those 90%, 78% said they prefer Charleston as the identifier over West Virginia. On the name suggestions, 36% said they wanted us to return to the Charleston Charlies; 15% wanted us to return to the Alley Cats, and 6% wanted us to change to the Wheelers.
“So between those three, and they were the top three, 57% wanted us to return to one of the prior names.”
With the survey results in hand, Domino, team owner Andy Shea and other Power front-office personnel got together to come to a consensus on the new name.
Domino said the Charlies name will remain a part of the club’s branding for the foreseeable future, but it won’t be its primary name.
“We are not going to be the Charlies full-time,” Domino said. “We will continue being the Charlies two times a week. It’s a very popular name, it’s a name we like, it’s a name a lot of our fans like, but not all of our fans.
“We will continue to celebrate the name Charlies, and we’ll continue being the Charlies for the foreseeable future.”