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Opinion With masks and distancing, Biden’s speech sent the wrong message about the power of our vaccines

President Biden delivers his remarks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. Attendance to the president's address was limited to 200 because of coronavirus restrictions. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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With his speech before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, President Biden missed his biggest opportunity to reduce vaccine hesitancy.

The problem wasn’t the content of his speech — it was the setting.

The 200 attendees entered the 1,600-person-capacity House chamber spaced apart and wearing masks. Some appeared to be double-masked. They were asked not to make physical contact, though some still fist-bumped or shook hands. There were markers indicating which seats could be occupied, with numerous empty spaces in between. As the president spoke, the vice president and speaker of the House sat behind him, both clad in masks.

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought this was six months ago, before Americans had access to safe, highly effective vaccines.

Then, all the precautions taken would have been the appropriate response to a surging pandemic, because the only tools we had to prevent the spread of covid-19 were masking, physical distancing and testing. But we’re in a totally different place now. Thanks to the work of scientists around the world, there are vaccines that are extraordinarily effective in preventing severe illness and reducing the spread of the virus. Thanks to the Biden administration’s leadership, every American 16 and older can sign up to receive one of these incredible vaccines.

How incredible are they? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report, there were only 7,157 breakthrough infections among 87 million fully vaccinated people — a rate of 0.008 percent.

Of course, you wouldn’t know that the vaccines are so effective by looking at the CDC’s overly-cautious guidelines. Already, a very damaging narrative is taking hold: If the vaccines are so effective, then why so many precautions for the fully vaccinated? What’s the point of getting inoculated if not much changes?

Look, I can understand the need for caution with our nation’s top lawmakers. Many are older and could be at high risk for severe disease if they contract covid-19. But with a breakthrough rate of 0.008 percent, there is most likely no one who has coronavirus in a room of 1,600 vaccinated people. An additional precaution could have been testing for all attendees, which would reduce the risk of an asymptomatic carrier to effectively zero. Another benefit of the vaccines is that they reduce the likelihood of severe illness, so even if someone were to become infected, almost certainly they’d have mild symptoms that would not result in hospitalization.

Surely, those are odds our leaders should be willing to take on to demonstrate the benefit of vaccination to the American people.

Perhaps Biden wanted to differentiate himself from his predecessor. To be sure, it was horrific to see President Donald Trump’s many maskless, packed superspreader events in the midst of the worst of the coronavirus surge. But the message coming from Biden isn’t right either. Over-correction has a price; at best, it makes public health measures seem performative rather than science-based. At worst, it calls vaccine efficacy into question.

Another reason Biden may not have wanted so many in the room could be that the CDC still cautions against large events. But the problem isn’t that he’d have been going against CDC guidance; the problem is the guidance itself. The CDC needs to urgently change its recommendations to clearly distinguish between events in which anyone can attend and events that allow only those fully vaccinated. Proof of vaccination would allow concerts, theaters and virtually all businesses back at full capacity. This has been key to Israel’s health and economic recovery, and it has served as a powerful incentive to vaccination there.

Maybe Biden didn’t want to wade into the ongoing debate about the so-called vaccine passport, though I think this would have been the perfect opportunity to point out that verification of vaccination is not some kind of national ID but actually an extension of a health screen. The Trump administration required testing as a condition of entry to some events; vaccination proof is not so different, except it works to cut coronavirus risk far better.

Imagine if Wednesday’s joint session had required that all attendees be fully vaccinated. Those who were not vaccinated were not welcome. But those permitted in could walk into the room, take off their mask, sit next to one another, and listen to a presidential address — just as they did in 2019.

The science shows that could have been done. It would have sent an unequivocal message that vaccines are safe, effective and the key to ending the pandemic. Instead, the American people got a different message, one that could impede the nation’s vaccine progress at a time when we can least afford it.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Biden’s speech was bipartisan and partisan art the same time

Gary Abernathy: Biden is going big, and momentum is on his side

Christine Emba: Harris and Pelosi headline a night for women. Almost.

Jennifer Rubin: Biden’s address to Congress proves we have an adult back in the presidency

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