The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s failing miserably at addressing concerns from the vaccine hesitant

President Biden walks from the White House to Marine One on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

This column has been updated.

The Biden administration’s covid-19 vaccination effort is faltering. Just 47.9 percent of Americans have received one dose — well short of Biden’s 70 percent goal — and the vaccination rate in the United States has slowed from its April peak. We’ve now reached the point where everyone eager to get their shot has gotten it. The challenge has shifted from ensuring supply meets demand to creating demand by convincing vaccine-hesitant Americans to get their shots.

The good news is that, according to Gallup, only about 16 percent of the unvaccinated don’t trust vaccines in general. The rest are persuadable. So why are they hesitating? Gallup found that 24 percent are waiting to confirm the vaccines are safe, 21 percent are in no rush because they are not afraid of getting seriously ill from covid, and 17 percent are concerned about the speed with which the vaccine was developed. It’s the job of our elected leaders to address these concerns — and they are failing miserably in doing so.

The first step is for our fully vaccinated leaders to start acting like it. President Biden continues to undermine public confidence in vaccines by wearing his mask outside when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says he does not even have to wear it inside. Vice President Harris was recently pictured kissing her husband through a mask, even though both are fully vaccinated. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) continues to impose a mask mandate on the House floor and is issuing $500 fines to members for refusing to wear them — even though the CDC says fully vaccinated Americans can be indoors without masks, even around unvaccinated people.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen's opinionsFollow

All of this signals a lack of trust in the effectiveness of the vaccines. If you thought it was irresponsible of President Donald Trump to refuse to wear a mask, it is equally irresponsible for Biden to wear one now that he has been vaccinated. If he wants hesitant Americans to get their shots, Biden needs to make clear that when they do, they can ditch their masks, stop social distancing and live their lives again.

Should we keep wearing masks? Read the transcript of Dr. Leana Wen’s latest live chat.

Second, we need to change the way we talk about the vaccines. Politicians know that in any campaign, words matter. Republicans failed for years to get rid of the “estate tax” but found more success as soon as they rebranded it the “death tax.” The Biden administration recently ordered U.S. immigration enforcement agencies to stop referring to “illegal aliens” and call those who enter the country illegally “undocumented immigrants” instead. The words we choose can change public perceptions — sometimes dramatically.

The same is true when it comes to vaccines. People who are vaccine-hesitant are not going to be convinced by appeals to get “vaccinated.” Why not urge them to get “immunized” against covid-19 instead? The terms are interchangeable and familiar to most Americans. Every parent has had to fill out their children’s “immunization record” for school. But unlike vaccination, immunization focuses on the result of getting your shot — immunity. And who doesn’t want to be immune to covid-19? It won’t convince die-hard anti-vaxxers, but it certainly could make a difference with the hesitant but persuadable majority.

Third, where are the ads for the vaccines? We’re inundated with TV commercials from pharmaceutical companies. We’ve all seen the ads for Ozempic (Oh, oh, oh, Ozempic!) and Rybelsus (You are my sunshine!) to treat Type 2 diabetes and ads for Skyrizi and Cosentyx (featuring Cyndi Lauper) showing how they cleared up plaque psoriasis and gave people their lives back.

So why are Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson not flooding the airwaves with similar ads touting the life-changing impact of their covid-19 inoculations? Answer: The government won’t let them. The FDA bars companies from marketing drugs approved under an emergency use authorization without commissioner approval. They’ve been allowed to do some limited, generic ads touting the value of getting vaccinated and the power of science, but they can’t mention their products by name or create anything resembling the slick, multimillion-dollar campaigns for other drugs.

This is insane. Barring marketing of emergency use drugs may make sense when they are approved for limited distribution to a discrete population. But the federal government has set a goal of inoculating every eligible American against covid-19. It’s in the national interest to allow pharmaceutical companies and their well-paid ad agencies to inundate the airwaves with creative campaigns selling their life-altering effect of the vaccines. If anything, the Biden administration should be spending some of the $1.9 trillion it recently secured from Congress to support those efforts, instead of restricting them.

The Biden administration did a good job of accelerating delivery of the vaccines, but it is doing an awful job selling them. Through bad example, poor language and needless regulation, it is hindering the vaccination effort — and with it the end of the pandemic.

Read more:

Joseph G. Allen: The CDC’s critics are wrong. The agency was right to relax indoor masking.

The Post’s View: Vaccine certificates could help avoid a chaotic post-pandemic world

James Hohmann: Paying people to take the vaccine will backfire

Leana S. Wen: The CDC’s mask guidance is a mess. Biden needs to clean it up.

Alexandra Petri: I do not wish to learn anything more about my wealthy husband’s near demise (which would have been sad)

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.