WASHINGTON — President Biden said that the federal government was considering making vaccines mandatory for its workforce on Tuesday – what would amount to a significant escalation in the push to expand vaccine coverage, as the surge from the Delta variant complicates the country’s reopening and brings the issue of widespread vaccine resistance to the fore.

“That’s under consideration right now,” Biden said in response to a reporter’s question about a mandate for federal employees, at an appearance. “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I thought you were.”

The news comes as the exponential growth of cases in many areas of the country concerns public health officials and government authorities. Vaccination rates have been slowing for weeks, even though less than half of the country is fully vaccinated – well under the targets officials say is necessary to control outbreaks from more virulent strains of the virus like the Delta variant.

And the public and political appetite for restrictions and closures, always fraught, appears to be waning even further, more than 16 months into the pandemic.

Further, the sharp rise in cases comes as many office buildings and corporate campuses that have been closed for the entirety of the pandemic have begun the process of reopening in cities across the country.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which addresses workplace complaints about discrimination over race, religion, sex and other characteristics, issued guidance in May that said that employers could mandate vaccines for workers to work onsite, as long as they do it in ways that don’t run afoul of civil rights and disability statutes. And the Justice Department followed with a similar memo on Monday that said that federal law does not prohibit public and private employers from requiring the vaccine, even if it has only been approved for emergency use, by the Food and Drug Administration.

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Recent court rulings, in cases filed by groups opposed to mandates, have upheld these requirements too.

But many companies so far have avoided vaccine mandates, opting instead for guidance urging or recommending the vaccine.

The tide may be turning, as the spike in cases from the Delta variant begins to threaten hopes for a return to anything resembling a pre-pandemic normal.

There are more than 4 million federal employees, a figure that includes civilian workers, members of the military, and members of the U.S. Postal Service, according to recent estimates, making the government the country’s largest employer. When including the vast ranks of federal contractors and grant workers, that number tops 10 million. But it was not immediately clear who the potential vaccine requirements in discussion would apply to.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs hospitals and clinics around the country, announced on Monday that it would mandate coronavirus vaccines for more than 100,000 front line health care workers, making it the first federal agency to do so.

New York City and California also announced mandates that employees get the vaccine or face regular testing.

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Covered employees of the VA have until Aug. 22 to be past the waiting period after their final dose, if they receive a vaccine requiring two doses.

“I feel quite strongly that I should do everything in my power to promote patient safety,” Veterans Secretary Denis McDonough said at a news conference, noting that COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 37 percent at VA facilities. “These are the most patient-facing cohort of personnel that we have.”

He said that employees may ask for an exemption for medical or religious reasons but for employees who do not qualify and refuse vaccination, “we reserve the right that that would come with disciplinary impact up to and including expulsion from federal service.”

McDonough said that the department is reviewing its authority to expand the mandate to other employees, naming benefits specialists who meet with patients as a possible next category.

Defense officials did not respond to questions on Tuesday about whether the Defense Department is considering requiring vaccinations for employees.

Previously, the Pentagon has encouraged service members to consult with their doctors and consider vaccination, but declined to require it.

The Washington Post’s Dan Diamond, Dan Lamothe, and Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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