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Biden pleads with unvaccinated Americans to be inoculated as virus surges

President Biden is greeted by moderator Don Lemon at the CNN Town Hall in Cincinnati on July 21, 2021.
President Biden is greeted by moderator Don Lemon at the CNN Town Hall in Cincinnati on July 21, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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CINCINNATI — President Biden pleaded urgently Wednesday with anyone eligible for a vaccine shot to get one, asserting in an unusually direct way that the pandemic is now essentially a problem only for those who are still refusing to get immunized.

Biden spoke at a pivotal moment in the pandemic, as new cases and deaths are far down from their peak. But the emergence of the coronavirus’s delta variant, along with the refusal of large parts of the population to get vaccinated, has prompted a resurgence in some states and fears of a major spike in the fall.

Speaking to voters in Ohio at a town hall-style event broadcast by CNN, Biden was challenged on issues including the economy and gun laws. But the resurgent pandemic took up most of the discussion, and Biden — while careful not to assign blame — was blunt in making a distinction between those who are now at risk of hospitalization or death and those who are much less so.

“It’s real simple: We have a pandemic for those who haven’t gotten a vaccination,” he said.

He also challenged Americans to reject conspiracy theories and face the reality of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, whatever their politics. A pro-Trump mob overran the U.S. Capitol that day in an attempt to prevent Congress from confirming Biden’s election victory.

“I don’t care if you think I’m Satan reincarnated. The fact is, you can’t look at that television and say nothing happened on the 6th. You can’t listen to people who say this was a peaceful march,” the president said.

The question-and-answer session at Mount St. Joseph University included questions from people who said they had supported the Democrat in his presidential run last year and some who said they had not.

Biden said he expected the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend that children under 12 returning to school next fall wear masks. He said the Food and Drug Administration probably fully would approve a vaccine around the beginning of the school year, rather than the current emergency authorization.

But he stressed that those were guesses, not edicts.

“I do not tell any scientists what they should do,” Biden said. “I do not interfere.”

Six months into the job, Biden has largely delivered on his promise to change the direction of the worst pandemic in more than a century and to jump-start the economy. But he has less to show for his pledge to work with Republicans on a range of issues, with the clock running on time for cooperation.

Biden asserted Wednesday that a bipartisan infrastructure framework has a good chance of passage. Asked by a voter whether that could happen, the president said, “The answer is absolutely, positively yes. I’m not just saying that.” He added to the Ohio audience, “We’re going to fix that damn bridge of yours going into Kentucky.”

Biden sounded wistful at some points and combative at others. “They’re lying,” he said of critics who accuse him of wanting to “defund the police.”

The event came amid a surge in coronavirus cases linked to the highly transmissible delta variant just weeks before the start of the school year. It also came one day after the White House acknowledged that what are called breakthrough infections have occurred among members of its own fully vaccinated staff.

Asked about vaccine misinformation, which he has said is prevalent on social media platforms such as Facebook, Biden said his administration is trying to counter bad information with solid science. Without identifying Fox News by name, Biden joked that some network personalities have had “an altar call” about the importance of vaccines, now advocating for them after months of questioning their efficacy.

Biden also was questioned about the economy, jobs and inflation. Prices for cars, food and other basics are rising — increases that the Biden administration argues are temporary but some economists say are still concerning.

Overall, prices rose 5.4 percent in June from a year earlier, the largest such rise since 2008 as the economy recovers from pandemic shutdowns and job losses. Inflation has been rising this spring and summer, tied in part to Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package and roaring consumer demand.

Biden appeared to struggle to answer a young restaurant owner who said he is having a hard time hiring enough people. Biden replied that federal stimulus money “kept you open,” but he acknowledged that higher wages place a squeeze on the hospitality industry.

“Now that they have opportunities to do other things and there is a shortage of employees,” Biden told him.

Even as Biden marveled at the hard work involved in staffing and managing restaurants, he offered little prospect of a quick fix.

“I think your business, and the tourist business, is really going to be in a bind for a little while.”

The trip to Cincinnati marked Biden’s third visit to Ohio during his presidency. The state is a longtime battleground but has grown redder in recent years, and President Donald Trump won it by eight percentage points.

Biden has not given up on reclaiming the votes of blue-collar and lower-income Ohio Democrats and independents who flocked to the populist Trump, and he has made a point of calling the proposed bipartisan infrastructure package a “blue-collar blueprint.” Biden visited a union training center here before the town hall event.

Rob Portman of Ohio is the lead GOP lawmaker negotiating the infrastructure package in the U.S. Senate, as Biden noted. “He’s a decent, honorable man,” Biden said.

How do some vaccinated people still test positive for the coronavirus?

But the pandemic, which hurt Trump’s chances of reelection and became the animating issue for Biden’s campaign, dominated much of the discussion.

Although coronavirus cases have begun a rapid climb in recent weeks, the increase has been most pronounced in specific, generally conservative states, and health officials are warning of a pandemic almost entirely confined to those who — by choice or circumstance — have not been vaccinated.

More than 97 percent of new hospitalizations connected with the delta variant are among the unvaccinated.

With cases rising again after months of promising news, a growing number of experts are warning that face masks may again be necessary, and the subject is even under discussion at the White House. Los Angeles County has reimposed a mask mandate, and masks are recommended indoors in eight San Francisco Bay-area jurisdictions. Mask mandates are being discussed in coronavirus hot spots such as Arkansas and Missouri.

More than 609,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States. Reported cases now approach 35 million.

Shortly before Biden headed to Ohio, Republicans sent a warning over the future of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan that is central to the president’s argument that Congress and the country can still unite to achieve big goals.

Republicans blocked a move by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would have moved the package forward even though parts of it are unfinished. A bipartisan group of 22 senators negotiating the package said a deal is still likely, but the episode exposed the frailty of the blueprint for revitalizing roads, bridges, water supply systems and broadband Internet.

Biden predicted success and said a second vote should take place Monday.

Also Wednesday, Senate Republicans threw a wrench into Biden’s spending plans with a threat to reject an increase in the government’s debt ceiling. Republicans said they first want Congress to agree to spending cuts or other reforms. The current agreement that suspends the debt ceiling expires in 10 days.

Republicans had not raised the same objections about the debt ceiling — the statutory amount the government can borrow to pay its bills — when advancing policies under Trump that helped add $7 trillion to the federal debt during his term.

Republicans also banded together last month to block a sweeping Democratic bill aimed at making voting easier, setting back Democrats’ hope to override a growing list of state laws passed by Republicans that Democrats say would restrict ballot access for minorities and lower-income Americans.

But although the president has tasked Vice President Harris to make voting rights part of her portfolio, the White House has so far not been able to present a path forward on federal legislation that would curb a raft of voting restrictions.

Wootson reported from Washington. Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.