U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy defended President Joe Biden's new mandates to vaccinate 100 million Americans against COVID-19, calling it an "ambitious" and "thoughtful" plan as the country has faced more than 100,000 cases a day for the past four weeks and roughly a quarter million new cases being reported among children.
"The requirements that he announced are not sweeping requirements for the entire nation," Murthy told ABC "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos. "These are focused on areas where the federal government has legal authority to act."
Reaching a milestone this week, 75% of American adults have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but Murthy warned that the delta variant is a "tough foe" that has "thrown curve balls" at any progress made. He said Biden's actions "have to be taken" to help get through the pandemic.
The president on Thursday unveiled a six-part strategy to combat the delta variant that includes a new Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule for private businesses with over 100 employees to either require workers to be fully vaccinated or face weekly testing -- covering roughly 80 million workers.
The vaccine mandate is now also required for 17 million health care workers and 4 million federal government employees and contractors, but they won't have the option to undergo weekly tests.
"We know that these kinds of requirements actually work to improve our vaccination rates," Murthy said. "Tyson Foods, for example, which put in a vaccine requirement recently saw that its vaccination rate went from 45% to more than 70% in a very short period of time and they're not even at their deadline yet."
The president's mandate on private businesses received swift criticism and legal threats from Republican governors, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who called it "fundamentally wrong" for someone to lose their job for not being vaccinated.
Murthy pushed back against that opposition, saying Sunday that "there are requirements that we put in workplaces and schools every day to make sure that workplaces and schools are safe," such as mandatory vaccines for children to attend school.
"This is not an unusual phenomenon. What it is, is I think an appropriate response for us to recognize that if we want our economy to be back, if we want our schools to stay in session, we've got to take steps to make sure workplaces and learning environments are safe and these requirements will help do that," he continued.
The surgeon general also defended the administration's actions against legal challenges, saying it "wouldn't have been put forward if the president’s administration didn’t believe that it was an appropriate, legal measure to take."
"The COVID virus is a dangerous virus," he continued. "It makes our workplaces and our schools, far less safe than they should be. So this is an appropriate action, we believe, and it's certainly from a public health perspective -- most importantly -- will help keep workers safe."
Pressed by Stephanopoulos on whether these mandates might harden the opposition to vaccinations, Murthy said it is "absolutely understandable" that this pandemic may have triggered "a lot of anger, a lot of fatigue, a lot of impatience," but that it should not "turn us on each other."
"Our enemy is a virus, it is not one another," he said. "And what we have to do is approach, this next phase of the pandemic response recognizing we've got to listen to each other before we rush to judgment. We've got to support one another in our decision making and during times of crisis."
This is the first time OSHA will create a rule requiring vaccinations and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that they are hoping the rule making proceeds "as quickly as possible."
While Biden continues to take criticism from the right for going too far, there are also calls from others who have said he's not doing enough. Dr. Leana Wen told NPR that Biden should go "even further" and impose mandates for interstate travel, while others are calling for the administration to find a way and require vaccines for 12- to 17-year-olds.
"We will always be looking for more measures that we can take," Murthy told Stephanopoulos in response to those wanting a more aggressive response. "But I do think that this series of measures taken here present a strong step forward and they will ultimately help protect our communities."
As hospitals feel the crush across the country -- with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing there are four times more patients in hospitals than a year ago -- Murthy said the trajectory of the pandemic over the next several months "depends on what we collectively do as a society in the weeks ahead."
"Do we reach out to our family and friends and urge them to get vaccinated? Do we step up and use our masks in indoor public settings, recognizing that there is good scientific evidence that it helps reduce the spread of the virus? Do we ensure that in our schools we are taking the layers of precaution that we know help keep our kids safer from masks to regular testing to improved ventilation?" he asked. "If we take those steps, George, I think we can make a lot of progress in the months ahead. But it really does depend on us and what we do together."