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Opinion Biden sticks with a lighter touch on vaccinations

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Tuesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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President Biden on Tuesday was able tout major advances in his covid-19 vaccination program: 150 million Americans have received at least one dose; 105 million are fully vaccinated; 85 percent of seniors have received a shot, and 70 percent are fully inoculated. Despite some hot spots, 40 states are seeing declining cases decline, and deaths nationwide (especially among seniors) have dropped dramatically. Biden made the reasonable claim that “tens of thousands” of Americans are alive today because of the effective vaccination plan.

The United States is moving from a supply problem to a demand problem. There is adequate vaccine production, a network of government mass-vaccination sites and a pharmacy network with tens of thousands of locations. Now, Biden is laying out three new goals: Getting kids between the ages of 12 and 15 vaccinated as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves vaccines for that age bracket; making it even easier to get vaccinations (e.g., setting up more rural sites, creating a website and government texting system to help people locate the nearest site, retail giveaways to encourage people to come in); and, as he delicately put it, intensifying work to reach people who “aren’t sure” about getting vaccinated.

On the last, he could have taken a two-by-four to right-wing politicians and media outlets encouraging vaccine hesitancy. He could have warned that unvaccinated people may soon find their activities curtailed (e.g., no air travel without proof of vaccination). But that is not this president’s style, nor would those techniques likely produce results — at least not yet. Instead, he is setting another goal for the Fourth of July: 70 percent of Americans with at least one dose, and 160 million fully vaccinated. The president is also relying on doctors, faith and community leaders and favorable word of mouth from the already-vaccinated to convince holdouts. Almost sweetly, Biden implored Americans to “be patient with one another.”

Biden’s remarks highlight the balancing act he and other government officials must maintain. He wants to highlight all the benefits of getting vaccinated (e.g., no need to wear masks outdoors!), but with so many Americans partially or completely unvaccinated and the risk of new variants, relatively few pandemic restrictions have changed. Unfortunately, not posing a risk of killing others does not seem to be enough motivation for millions of Americans to get the shot.

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Germany is going in a slightly different direction. CNN reports that the country is “considering new plans to give extra rights and freedoms to people who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. The proposed changes to the existing pandemic rules would involve lifting certain social contact and movement restrictions. Inoculated and recovered people will no longer need a negative test if they want to go shopping, to the hairdresser or to visit a botanical garden, according to examples laid out by the German justice ministry.” Contrary to the American holdouts who rail against any “passport" system that would identify them as non-vaccinated and impose stiffer restrictions on them, German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht stresses freedom for the responsible, already-vaccinated citizens. As she said on Germany’s n-tv: “By getting vaccinated, those people now again have the possibility to live out their basic rights. I think it is solidarity to be happy for them.”

Many businesses in the United States are in a quandary. Can they require masks? Do they insist that everyone come back to the office even if not vaccinated? Workplaces and schools, which have traditionally imposed vaccination requirements for childhood diseases, will likely start creating disincentives to remain unvaccinated (e.g., no entry into stores, no travel on airplanes, no in-person schooling).

The anti-vaccination crowd rails about any restrictions or obligations placed on them, but as the United States moves toward being a majority-vaccinated country, Americans' collective “patience” with maintaining restrictions because these people refuse to behave responsibly will wane. They can remain unvaccinated, but the rest of the country should not be trapped in covid mode indefinitely.

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