WASHINGTON — President Biden announced new measures on Tuesday designed to bolster the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination drive that has slowed in recent weeks.
“As we anticipated, the pace of vaccination is slowing,” Biden said in prepared White House remarks.
As he outlined new initiatives, including vaccinating adolescents and increasing the number of walk-up clinics, Biden also announced a new goal: that 70 percent of American adults would be vaccinated by the Independence Day holiday, now two months away. As of Tuesday, about 40 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Tuesday’s address, in which Biden once again announced goals that had been met and exceeded, marked a subtle shift from earlier pandemic-related speeches. This time the president more readily acknowledged the challenges involved in reaching so-called herd immunity against the coronavirus.
“We’re still vaccinating millions of Americans every day," Biden said. But whereas 3.3 million Americans were receiving daily vaccinations in mid-April, that number has now fallen to 2.29 million. Evangelicals and young people have emerged as pockets of resistance to vaccination, though the reasons for such resistance can be manifold and not necessarily ideological.
Biden announced a new website, vaccines.gov, intended to provide a centralized database of vaccination sites. Information about nearby vaccination sites will now also be available by sending a text message to the number 438829, with the sender’s ZIP code included in the message.
The president also said that 40,000 pharmacies across the country partaking in a federal program would offer walk-up vaccination appointments, obviating the need to schedule such an appointment in advance. Biden also spoke of making inroads into rural areas and touted businesses that were offering discounts to people who showed proof of vaccination.
“Now we’re going to have to bring the vaccine to people who are less eager,” he said. All Americans became eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine last month, but whereas too much demand had initially presented the primary challenge, properly targeting supply is the greater task ahead. Biden described that as “a more granular” effort than the one that involved crowded mass vaccination sites throughout much of the winter.
Separately, the Biden administration told governors on Tuesday that it would change how it allocated vaccines to states. The change will make the federal government more responsive to areas of the country where demand is high. Some states, conversely, are leaving thousands of doses unused due to low demand.
Millions more Americans could become eligible for a COVID-19 inoculation in a matter of days, if, as expected, the Food and Drug Administration allows the Pfizer vaccine to be administered to children between the ages of 12 and 15.
“We are ready to move immediately,” Biden said of that coming approval. He said that adolescents could be vaccinated at some 20,000 pharmacies nationwide and at pediatricians’ offices. The apparent hope is that pediatricians would be able to allay parents’ concerns about potential side effects.
All these measures are intended to help the nation meet the president’s July 4 goal, which appears to be more difficult than previous benchmarks, such as inoculating 100 million people within the first 100 days of the new administration. That was fairly feasible, given the trajectory of vaccination at the time Biden took office.
Reasons for the current slowdown are complex. Alleged risk of blood clotting put a temporary pause on use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was the easiest to administer because it did not require shipment or storage at extremely low temperatures. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine offers full inoculation after one dose, unlike the vaccines manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer, which require that the recipient come back three or four weeks after the initial shot for a booster.
A vaccine that did not require a second appointment would have proved especially useful in hard-to-reach areas. In addition to blood-clotting issues, Johnson & Johnson has been plagued by production challenges that have made its vaccine the most problematic in the nation’s arsenal.
The risk, however small, of blood clotting may have also frightened some Americans away from vaccination altogether. The rate of daily vaccinations started dropping right around the time that the news broke of the Johnson & Johnson blood-clotting problem, according to a New York Times analysis.
Health experts warn that the coronavirus pandemic is far from over. While a devastating new wave like the one now occurring in India may not be likely in the U.S., the virus continues to kill hundreds of Americans each day.
Once seen as a realistic goal, herd immunity is now regarded as elusive, given entrenched reluctance to take the vaccine among some. Community spread of the virus will thus persist for the foreseeable future; the pace of that spread will determine how quickly life will return to normal.
“We’re gonna keep at it,” Biden vowed near the end of his remarks on Tuesday. And he made clear that even if the benchmark he’d set for the Fourth of July were to be met, plenty of work would remain thereafter. “We're going to be vaccinating people into next fall,” he said.
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