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Obama makes surprise visit to D.C. vaccination site amid polarized virus debate

Former president Barack Obama and infectious-diseases expert Anthony S. Fauci talk with elementary school students Tuesday as the students prepare to get their second vaccine shots at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast Washington.
Former president Barack Obama and infectious-diseases expert Anthony S. Fauci talk with elementary school students Tuesday as the students prepare to get their second vaccine shots at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast Washington. (Pool/Reuters)
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Students at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast D.C. expected to receive stickers, maybe a T-shirt, after getting a coronavirus shot on Tuesday afternoon. But shortly after workers began the vaccinations, a tall, gangly former president ambled into the school’s multipurpose room.

“We are just getting through the holiday season and we have one more thing to be thankful for, which is that we can get kids vaccinated if they’re between the ages of 5 and 11,” Barack Obama told the crowd of more than 50 students, teachers and parents. “Nobody really loves getting a shot. I don’t love getting a shot. But I do it because it’s going to help keep me healthy.”

Obama was accompanied by Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-diseases expert, in the surprise event at a vaccination clinic.

The visit infused some star power into the polarized vaccination debate at a tenuous time for the Biden administration’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

As large pockets of resistance to getting vaccinated endure, the recently discovered omicron variant threatens to make the pandemic longer and more complicated.

Pivotal questions remain about whether current defenses against the coronavirus will suffice or if leaders will call for more restrictive mitigation measures — meaning a second straight holiday season of Zoom Christmas parties and socially distant season’s greetings.

Those fears have already sent shock waves through financial markets and may have political consequences, particularly for President Biden, who made a competent coronavirus response a central tenet of his campaign for the White House.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its recommendations for booster shots, saying every American 18 and older should get them. In a speech from the White House the same day, Biden tried to quell fears, saying the omicron variant was “a cause for concern” but “not a cause for panic.”

But scientists and public health leaders have conceded there is still much they do not know about the latest variant, and what effect it will have on the ongoing pandemic. Cases have been confirmed in 20 countries so far, though not in the United States.

Scientists say the variant’s high number of mutations might make it both highly transmissible and more capable of getting past immune defenses, including among those who have been vaccinated.

On Tuesday, the CEO of Moderna, the maker of one of the most prevalent and popular vaccines, said that existing vaccines might be less effective at combating the omicron variant than other variants.

Biden stressed Monday that coronavirus vaccinations remain the best defense against the virus, but millions of Americans still fear the vaccine more than the virus it’s meant to protect against.

At the gym with lowered basketball rims on Tuesday, Obama and Fauci tried to allay some of those fears in simple terms.

The vaccinations, Fauci said, “are really going to protect you. We know that from a lot of data, and a lot of experience we have.”

Later, Obama stressed that vaccinations were about more than simply not getting sick, but imperative for any return to normalcy, including in school.

“It’s also going to help keep schools open because the more kids are vaccinated, the less likely that we’re going to have a covid outbreak in the schools. And that means our kids have a chance to learn together and socialize — you know, do all the things that you’re supposed to be doing when you’re 5 or 6 or 7 or 11.”

He told anyone with enduring doubts to consult trusted messengers as they sought to chart the safest course through the pandemic.

“I think it’s really important for everyone to be informed and to talk to an informed health-care professional,” Obama said. “Talk to your family doctor. Talk to your pediatrician and get the information you need to make an informed decision.”

Still, he was proselytizing the converted. Most of the people had come to the school of their own accord to get a first or second shot for their children, and the former president's arrival was mostly a closely guarded secret until he walked onto the hardwood floor.

Later, some students said they realized it was more than a run-of-the-mill after-school event: Teachers milled around the halls after the closing bell, Secret Service agents inspected the crowd, and reporters stood at the ready before Obama made his entrance.

“I thought Joe Biden was going to walk through the door,” one student told reporters.