President Joe Biden on Tuesday amped up the pressure on Republican governors who have banned mask mandates or vaccine requirements as COVID-19 cases rise, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
"I say to these governors: Please help," Biden said. "But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way."
"The people are trying to do the right thing," he added. "Use your power to save lives."
"Worst of all, some state officials are passing laws or signing orders that forbid people from doing the right thing," Biden said. "As of now, seven states not only banned mask mandates, but also banned them in their school districts, even for young children who cannot get vaccinated."
Taking aim at Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas – Abbott signed an executive order last week banning vaccine passports and mask mandates, while DeSantis signed an order last week prohibiting schools from mandating masks – the president said that "their decisions are not good for their constituents."
"And it's clear to me, and to most medical experts, that the decisions being made, like not allowing mask mandates in school and the like, are bad health policy," he added.
"Florida and Texas account for one third of all new Covid-19 cases in the entire country," Biden said. "Just two states. Look, we need leadership from everyone. If some governors aren't willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it."
Texas and Florida account for about one-third of all new COVID-19 cases, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said during a news briefing on Monday.
Biden sharply criticized the governors and other officials who have moved to block the reimposition of mask mandates to slow the delta strain of the virus. The strain is surging in their states and other parts of the country that have large numbers of unvaccinated people.
On Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis fired back at the president: "Joe Biden has taken to himself to try to single out Florida over COVID."
DeSantis used the opportunity to criticize Biden's border policies, blaming the surge in cases on migrants: "Why don’t you do your job? Why don't you get this border secure? And until you do that, I don’t wanna hear a blip about COVID from you, thank you."
There is no evidence that migrants at the border are having a significant impact on the spread of COVID-19.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier Tuesday expressed similar sentiments, and noted that help has been offered to Texas and Florida via the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.
"Teams from the CDC and HHS are in contact with Florida officials to offer technical assistance and support," Psaki said Tuesday. "We're also engaged with the governor's office in Texas and the state health department to discuss the state of the pandemic there and how we can offer specific assistance, as well as Louisiana."
A rise in infections in the U.S., fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, led U.S. public health officials last week to recommend that even people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 resume wearing face coverings in some public indoor settings.
Texas on Tuesday reported 11,774 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, 2,465 new probable cases and 51 new fatalities attributed to the virus. A total of 7,305 Texans are currently hospitalized with the virus. Johns Hopkins University puts the state’s current testing positivity rate at 11.52%.
Gov. Abbott last week issued an executive order banning agencies that receive state dollars from enacting mask or vaccine mandates.
"They have the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities," Abbott said in a statement about the order. "Vaccines, which remain in abundant supply, are the most effective defense against the virus, and they will always remain voluntary -- never forced -- in the State of Texas."
A spokesperson for Abbott said that the governor "has been clear that we must rely on personal responsibility, not government mandates. Every Texan has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinated."
The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Florida rose to an all-time high of 11,515 patients in one day, according to data the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down Tuesday, insisting that the spike will soon abate and that he will not impose any business restrictions or mask mandates.
DeSantis said he expects hospitalizations to drop in the next couple weeks, insisting that the spike is seasonal as Floridians spend more time together indoors to escape the summer heat and humidity.
After months of dangling carrots of incentive to Americans to get vaccinated — including million- dollar cash lotteries and opportunities to earn free college tuition — the Biden administration is looking to wield a stick by making it harder for people to remain unvaccinated without seeing their daily lives disrupted.
As he seeks to drive up vaccinations at home, Biden is also spotlighting his administration’s progress in sharing shots with the rest of the world — an initiative helped in part by the slowed pace of domestic vaccination that has increased the nation’s stockpile of doses. Roughly 90 million eligible Americans aged 12 and over have yet to receive one dose of vaccine.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.