The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden urges more Americans to get vaccinated but is silent on July 4 target

WASHINGTON, DC ‐ June 18, 2021: US President Joe Biden give remarks on COVID-19 response & vaccinations in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 18, 2021. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
WASHINGTON, DC ‐ June 18, 2021: US President Joe Biden give remarks on COVID-19 response & vaccinations in the State Dining Room of the White House on June 18, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President Biden on Friday touted a new milestone in the fight against the coronavirus but sidestepped how he is likely to fall short of his goal of ensuring that 70 percent of American adults receive a vaccination shot by July 4 — a rare setback in his five-month crusade against the virus, which he has made his highest priority.

In a speech at the White House, Biden said 300 million coronavirus vaccine doses had been administered since he took office 150 days ago, an achievement he said would propel the nation into a “very different summer compared to last year, a bright summer,” as virus infections and deaths have fallen sharply.

But Biden acknowledged that daunting challenges remain in the fight against the coronavirus — most significantly, the millions of people in the United States who are eligible for vaccines but have not gotten them. The president warned about the dangers they could face from the more contagious and potentially more lethal delta variant, now circulating in the United States, as well as the risks unvaccinated younger people might assume.

“As I promised you from the beginning, I will always give it to you straight — the good, the bad and the truth,” he said. “And the truth is that deaths and hospitalizations are drastically down in places where people are getting vaccinated. But unfortunately, cases and hospitalizations are not going down in many places in the lower vaccination rate states. They’re actually going up in some places.”

Biden said Americans will “celebrate our independence from the virus” on the July 4 holiday but made no mention of the vaccination goal he pegged to that date. In early May, Biden said he was aiming for 70 percent of adults to have at least one vaccine dose by then, and for 60 percent to be fully vaccinated.

Projections suggest the nation may fall closer to 68 percent of adults receiving at least one shot of the vaccine by July 4. Some experts caution that the United States may not cross Biden’s threshold until late July or even August.

White House officials and outside advisers dismissed the significance of that target, saying they are more concerned about regional variations in vaccination rates that could allow a resurgence of the virus.

Fifteen mostly East and West Coast states, plus D.C., have already vaccinated 70 percent of adult residents, led by Vermont, which has administered shots to 84 percent of adults. Five more states are over 68 percent and probably will reach Biden’s goal.

But other states are lagging far behind and are likely to miss the target; Arkansas has vaccinated just 51 percent of adults, for instance.

“Sixty-eight percent versus 70 percent doesn’t matter,” said Andy Slavitt, who served as a senior adviser to the White House coronavirus response before stepping down last week. “What matters is 50 percent in Arkansas versus 90 percent in Vermont.”

Still, Biden has made the pandemic his most urgent focus, and falling short of the July 4 target would be the first time his administration has failed to reach a self-imposed benchmark. The president’s advisers have long felt that his political fate will be determined in large measure by how the public assesses his stewardship of the crisis.

Biden has portrayed the Independence Day goal as a symbolic milepost — a moment for many Americans to return to the small celebrations they were forced to forgo last year. Although many vaccinated people will be in position to do that, a sizable portion of the country has not gotten a shot.

As of June 18, about 64 percent of adults had received at least one shot of coronavirus vaccine, according to tracking by The Washington Post, but the pace has dramatically slowed since mid-April, when more than 3 million shots per day were being administered. The seven-day average dipped below 1 million shots per day in early June before a subsequent uptick to about 1.3 million shots per day in the past week.

White House officials have said their “month of action” ahead of July 4 is helping drive those new vaccinations, as volunteers encourage shots through door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and other local events. An array of organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Service Employees International Union have mobilized their own networks in support of the White House push.

But multiple surveys continue to find that about one-third of Americans have no immediate plans to get vaccinated, citing objections that range from a belief the threat has been exaggerated to evidence that previously infected people retain protection against it. Public health experts say the nation needs widespread immunity to prevent a resurgence of cases later this year in the face of increasingly transmissible variants like delta linked to a spike in hospitalizations overseas.

“It’s a variant that is more easily transmissible, potentially deadlier and particularly dangerous for young people,” Biden warned Friday.

Limited supply and slow delivery were the early challenges Biden faced with the vaccine rollout, when appointments filled up as quickly as state and local officials could post them and many anxious Americans counted down the days until they could sign up. But in recent months, the challenge of vaccinating the country has become more about weak demand.

The administration has sought to address that in different ways. It called on employers to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover as needed and set aside money to offset some of those costs. It partnered with dating apps to try to spur younger people to get vaccinated and encouraged Black-owned barbershops to invite in health providers to get more shots in arms in African-American communities.

But disparities persist. The percentage of White people who received at least one dose of vaccine was about 1.4 times as high as the rate for Black people and 1.2 times as high as the rate for Hispanics, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of 40 states released this week.

As Biden’s goal goes unrealized, some liberal groups have blamed Republicans, arguing GOP officials have consistently played down the threat of the virus and failed to encourage their constituents to get shots.

“As our nation pushes hard to get shots in arms and meet President Biden’s goal of 70 percent vaccinated by July 4, we need all hands on deck — and if we don’t reach that goal we’ll all know where to point the finger of blame,” Brad Woodhouse, executive director of Protect Our Care, said last week.