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Partisan attacks over mask mandates, vaccines underscore deep divide over COVID

Roughly 2.7 million civilians working for the federal government now have a big choice to make about COVID-19 shots as President Joe Biden moves to require federal workers get vaccinated or face regular testing. That decision, and the return to the recommendation for Americans to wear face masks indoors, is causing a deep divide across the country, and in Congress. Yamiche Alcindor reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden has made a fresh and urgent appeal tonight for Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He's also put some 2.7 million federal workers on notice. They now have a big decision to make about getting their shots.

    White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today at the White House, President Biden announced that all federal employees and contractors are required to be vaccinated against COVID or undergo weekly testing.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Masking is one defense against the spread of COVID-19, but make no mistake. Vaccines are the best defense against you getting severely ill from COVID-19.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Biden also called on states and localities to use federal funds to pay anyone who gets vaccinated $100.

  • Joe Biden:

    I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks who have gotten vaccinated already, but here's the deal. If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And small and medium-sized businesses will now be reimbursed for offering their employees paid leave to get their family members, including their kids, vaccinated.

    Meanwhile, the new requirement for federal workers currently does not include those in the U.S. military. But the president is calling on the Department of Defense to look into how and when they could be added to the list.

    And the White House says federal employees who choose not to get vaccinated will not be fired. The president's decision comes at a time when the highly transmissible Delta variant is rapidly spreading across the country.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 50 percent of U.S. counties have a high level of community transmission. That means more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days.

    And, on Tuesday, the CDC updated its mask-wearing guidelines, including for those who are fully vaccinated. The agency recommended wearing masks indoors, particularly in regions where transmission is high.

    According to The New York Times, all of New York City and nearly every county in Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas currently fall under the CDC mask mandate guidance. In Florida, new cases over the past month have surged to an average of more than 10,000 per day. In Louisiana, daily infections over the course of two weeks are now over 3,000, and hospitalizations have increased by 180 percent.

    The updated CDC guidance has sparked outrage and confusion for many across the country, including among members of Congress. On Capitol Hill yesterday, physician and Republican Senator of Kansas Roger Marshall told reporters that he believes masks are ineffective against COVID.

  • Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS):

    In a perfect world, if you lived in a vacuum, maybe the mask would help some. But there is certainly no — no benefit that I can see, once you have had the vaccine, or if you have had the virus.

    I think there is certainly some downsides to them. There are psychological problems that they create, especially for our children and our senior citizens.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And earlier today, House Republicans again blasted Speaker Nancy Pelosi for reimposing a mask mandate for members on the House floor.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader (R-CA):

    Every time the CDC releases new guidance, not only does it contradict information they have already released, but it punishes Americans who have already done everything they were asked to do. They were told to be vaccinated. They wouldn't have to wear a mask.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Partisan attacks underscore just how deeply divided the country remains, as the nation scrambles to contain the virus.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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