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Opinion It’s time for Biden to make the case for vaccine requirements

President Biden speaks during a Fourth of July event at the White House on July 4. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)

President Biden missed an important opportunity on the Fourth of July by holding an event at the White House that did not require its more than 1,000 attendees to be vaccinated. The celebration could have been a chance to show that vaccination isn’t just an individual decision, but one that affects the health of others — including those already vaccinated.

Biden spoke at the event about vaccination as “the most patriotic thing you can do.” But on the same day, his covid-19 coordinator, Jeff Zients, said on CNN that vaccinations were not required to attend because it was about “individual choice.” “You’re protected if you’re vaccinated. You’re not protected if you’re not,” Zients said. This feeds into a “live and let live” attitude that has been used to question why someone should care about another person’s vaccination status. After all, if vaccines protect the person receiving it, then why should they care if others choose not to have it?

There’s an obvious problem with this line of thinking, which is the danger to those who do not have immune protection and not by choice. Children under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccination and people who are immunocompromised are at risk around unvaccinated people who could be infected with covid-19. In addition, despite the Biden administration’s admirable efforts to increase vaccine availability, many who are not yet vaccinated still lack access. Low-income workers and people facing food and housing insecurity are more likely to be unvaccinated despite wanting to get the vaccine.

But vaccinated Americans should also care whether people around them have gotten the shot. Here’s why: If everyone around them is also vaccinated, the chance of them being infected and then contracting covid-19 is virtually nil. On the other hand, if they’re in multiple settings every day where they are constantly surrounded by unvaccinated people, the risk of getting infected increases. Risk is additive, so the more unvaccinated people they’re exposed to, and the higher the rate of coronavirus in their community, the higher the risk.

This is no way refutes the effectiveness of covid-19 vaccines. All three U.S.-authorized vaccines are extremely protective against severe disease. More than 99 percent of people dying from covid-19 are unvaccinated. That’s testament to the extraordinary power of the vaccines.

Vaccines also greatly reduce the chances of people contracting covid-19. Multiple “real world” studies of those who received both doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have found that they are at least 90 percent protective against infection. The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be about 70 percent effective. All three vaccines are thought to substantially reduce the likelihood of being asymptomatic carriers who can infect others. Growing evidence suggests that the vaccines are all potent at protecting against the more contagious delta variant, but likely with less efficacy than for the previous variants.

For many Americans, these data will be reassuring that they can resume most if not all aspects of pre-pandemic life. But others will look at the same numbers and come to a different conclusion. A 70 or 90 percent reduction in risk still means that they could become ill; even if they don’t become severely ill, they could still end up with long-haul covid. People living at home with unvaccinated children or immunocompromised family members might also want to be more cautious.

Acknowledging this risk for vaccinated people isn’t undermining vaccine confidence; it’s being clear about how vaccines work. Even the best vaccine doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. Think of the covid-19 vaccine as a very good raincoat. If it’s drizzling, it will probably protect you. But if you go from thunderstorm to thunderstorm, at some point you will get wet. Wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings, as health officials in Los Angeles and St. Louis have advised, is an additional protective measure that could help.

There’s another measure that’s just as important: Surround yourself with others who are also vaccinated. Colleges and universities understand this, which is why hundreds of them have already announced that they will require vaccinations for their students and employees come fall. Many hospitals are mandating employees to receive the covid-19 shot as part of their required immunizations. More workplaces should be instituting these mandates to protect employees and their families, and the Biden administration needs to assist with these efforts. It should begin with changing its messaging to say that while vaccines do protect the vaccinated very well, it matters that others around are them are vaccinated, too.

Biden announced on Tuesday that his administration will double down on vaccination efforts with more community outreach and educational resources. That’s not nearly enough. Biden needs to get behind proof of vaccination, starting with his own White House events. A gathering touting the United States’ progress toward independence from the virus should have been the ideal opportunity to make the case for vaccine requirements. It matters for everyone, including the vaccinated.

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