The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Health 202: Vermont and Maine show it's possible to overcome the coronavirus, Biden says

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with Alexandra Ellerbeck

To varying degrees, the nation is once again battening down the hatches as the coronavirus’s delta variant rapidly spreads.

But President Biden struck an optimistic tone yesterday as he highlighted various states that have subdued the virus, offering an example of how better vaccination compliance could move the United States past the pandemic.

Look at Vermont, Biden urged.

The state has emerged with the highest vaccination rate, clocking in with 68 percent fully vaccinated. The president also mentioned Maine, which comes in third. In both states, the number of new cases detected each day is in the single digits.

The president also pointed to some encouraging indicators in places like Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, whose daily vaccination rates have now started slowly ticking upward after months of declines.

Nationally, vaccinations are averaging in the mid-600,000s per day, compared with the mid-500,000s two weeks ago. And, as Biden noted, the White House this week hit its target of 70 percent of American adults with at least one vaccine shot (albeit a month past Biden’s original Independence Day goal).

“This will make a big difference,” Biden told reporters. “These are encouraging signs.”

But the president had words for some of the states.

“In a notable toughening of his message, the president called out Republican governors who have banned businesses and universities from requiring vaccines or defied masking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” The Post's Tyler Pager writes.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has signed an executive order prohibiting cities and other government entities from enacting vaccine requirements or mask mandates. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed an order that prohibits schools from requiring masks. Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina and Tennessee have also banned or limited mask mandates.

“I say to these governors please help,” Biden said. “If you aren’t going to help at least get out of the way. Use your power to save lives.”

When asked specifically about the orders signed by DeSantis and Abbott, Biden said that “their decisions are not good for their constituents.”

Polls continue to underscore the challenge in getting shots to the remaining 90 million unvaccinated adults.

One-fourth of unvaccinated adults in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released this morning said they’ll probably get the shot by year’s end. But nearly half said they will “definitely not” get a vaccine and the remaining quarter called it “somewhat unlikely” or “very unlikely.”

There are multiple reasons for such hesitancy, some better than others. But one cause is a persistent — and simply untrue — perception about hypothetical danger posed by the coronavirus vaccines.

More than half of unvaccinated Americans said getting a vaccine is higher-risk than getting covid-19.

Just 34 percent of unvaccinated people (compared with 88 percent of vaccinated people) correctly said getting the disease is a higher risk than getting a vaccine, according to the Kaiser poll. Fifty-three percent of this unvaccinated population said the vaccine is a greater risk — an astounding view, considering that more than 600,000 Americans have died of the virus.

Of course, it’s true that the risk of serious illness from the coronavirus is extremely low for young, healthy people. But the risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from a vaccine is far lower than even that small risk.

The polls also found that Americans, deeply polarized, are continuing to respond to the pandemic in deeply ironic ways.

The unvaccinated were less likely to wear masks, more likely to gather with friends and family, and less likely to worry about contracting the delta variant, compared with the vaccinated population. Forty percent of unvaccinated adults said they’re worried about getting the delta variant, compared with 27 percent of the vaccinated.

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: New York City will require proof of vaccination.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday that New York will become the first major city to require people to show proof of vaccination for indoor activities like dining or working out at a gym. Starting Aug. 16, workers and customers in restaurants, indoor fitness facilities and entertainment centers will need to show proof of at least one vaccine dose. 

“New York’s requirement is similar to programs recently adopted in France, Germany and Italy, and represents one of the most aggressive moves to date by a major U.S. city to control the surge of infections,” The Post’s Derek Hawkins, Adela Suliman and Bryan Pietsch report.

No other jurisdiction has required residents to show proof of vaccination to participate in everyday activities, and several states, including Texas and Arkansas, have passed prohibitions on vaccine mandates. 

Los Angeles County, Washington, D.C., Louisiana and San Francisco have all announced indoor mask mandates. So far, New York has held off on a mask mandate, opting instead to focus on the vaccine requirement.

“Our choice is to act now or face more difficult options down the road,” New York City Council member Mark Levine, a Democrat who chairs the health committee, said in a news conference on Tuesday. “This is not an easy policy, it’s not a policy without controversy, but that has defined every difficult decision we’ve had to make in this crisis.”

OOF: Biden announced that the U.S. has shared more than 110 million vaccine doses with 65 countries.

The president said that the donations put the U.S. ahead of all other countries on vaccine donations, “proving that democracies can deliver.” 

“But some global health experts have offered a more pessimistic outlook, as the pandemic surges in many parts of the world” The Post’s Adam Taylor, Claire Parker and Miriam Berger report

“The doses are useful, but they are just too little, too late,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University Law. “It’s not going to make much of a dent in the pandemic.”

Gostin told The Post that the world needs 11 billion doses, calling the U.S. donation “a drop in the ocean.”

Wealthy nations quickly bought up the initial vaccine supply, with the U.S. securing 1.6 billion doses so far, or around 5.21 doses per capita. Only a few other wealthy nations have procured more per capita. Critics have accused the U.S. of hoarding doses.

OUCH: Tennessee pays to vaccinate cows but won’t pay people to get the coronavirus shot.

“Tennessee has sent nearly half a million dollars to farmers who have vaccinated their cattle against respiratory diseases and other maladies over the past two years. But Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who grew up on his family's ranch and refers to himself as a cattle farmer in his Twitter profile, has been far less enthusiastic about incentivizing herd immunity among humans,” the Associated Press’s Travis Loller reports

Tennessee has among the lowest vaccination rates in the country with only 39 percent of its population fully vaccinated, compared to 49 percent nationwide. But Lee has refused to follow the example of other states that have offered prizes including cash, trucks and booze to those who get the shot.

Lee hasn’t always been against vaccine incentives though. Tennessee’s Herd Health program, which began in 2019 under Lee, currently reimburses participating farmers up to $1,500 for vaccinating their herds and has handed out $492,561 over the past two fiscal years.

More in coronavirus news

The CDC announced a new eviction plan following backlash from Democrats.

The Biden administration announced a temporary ban on evictions for 60 days for U.S. counties with “substantial and high levels of transmission of the coronavirus.” The ban will cover 90 percent of the country amid the rapid spread of the delta variant, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

“The administration’s move Tuesday capped a sudden and remarkable rift between Biden and his House Democratic allies, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who pushed the administration to act,” The Post’s Jeff Stein, Tyler Pager, Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm report.

Late last week, just days before the CDC’s moratorium was set to expire, the White House issued a last-minute call for Congress to pass a law offering new eviction protections. At the time, the White House claimed it did not have the legal authority to act unilaterally. House Democrats responded angrily, saying it would be impossible to do so on such short notice.

In announcing the moratorium, Biden acknowledged that it would likely be subject to court challenge and said that scholars disputed whether it would pass constitutional muster. He said the temporary extension would give the government time to distribute rental relief funds.

The delta variant is throwing school reopening plans into chaos.

“Viral videos of parents shouting obscenities during school board meetings, recall votes for board members — even death threats — underscore the pressure school leaders face as they contend with a virus far more contagious than what circulated last year,” Politico's Dan Goldberg, Juan Perez Jr. and Daniel Payne report

Some school districts are at odds with their governors over mask mandates. Phoenix school officials have announced they will require masks despite an Arizona state law prohibiting such mandates in schools. Officials in Broward County, Fla., made a similar announcement last week in defiance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's ban on mask mandates only to quickly backtrack after the Florida governor signed an executive order granting the state power to withhold funding from schools that require masks.

Some legal experts worry that long-protected vaccine mandates could come under threat.

So far, vaccine requirements in workplaces and universities have had early successes in court, but some experts say that political battles over coronavirus mandates could threaten long-standing legal precedent, the Hill’s Rebecca Beitsch reports.

Public health authority to mandate vaccines dates back to a landmark case in 1905 that determined reasonable vaccine requirements were necessary to protect the public from dangerous diseases. While many legal experts think legal challenges against vaccine mandates will continue to falter in court, others say it may depend on the type of exceptions allowed for religious or medical reasons.

“The issue now is the unpredictability of the conservative six on the current Supreme Court and the shadow docket opinions that are coming out of them that seem to be favoring the restrictions on public health authority to tamper with anything on religious liberties, for example,” said Gene Matthews, who spent 25 years as chief legal officer at the CDC and is now a professor at the University of North Carolina.

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