Biden, Harris to break out of COVID-19 ‘bubble’ with international trips
President Biden and Vice President Harris will embark in the coming days on their first international trips since taking office, and since the pandemic started.
While both are vaccinated, giving them significant protection against the coronavirus, some additional precautions are still expected to be put in place as they leave the U.S., where vaccination rates are far higher than most other countries.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows more than 63 percent of American adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and slightly more than 50 percent of the population has gotten at least one dose.
“The U.S., we’ve been in a bubble with our vaccinations. We’re among the world’s leaders,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “We’re getting back to normal, so we’re in a bubble and we don’t realize the rest of the world isn’t in the bubble with us.”
The countries Harris and Biden will be visiting have lagged in the manufacture, distribution and administration of vaccines. The contrast will likely lead to some additional health precautions for the president and vice president, and their travel will coincide with the start of U.S. efforts to more aggressively provide vaccine doses to the rest of the world.
Biden and Harris both received their second coronavirus vaccine shots in January, giving them strong protection against the virus, particularly cases with serious side effects. Still, some basic precautions are likely to be implemented to lower the risk of transmission during international meetings, as it’s unclear whether everyone they encounter has also been vaccinated.
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment on what precautions will be in place for Biden’s trip to Europe next week or Harris’s trip to Guatemala and Mexico when she leaves on Sunday.
“I think the president and vice president are reasonably safe in their planned travels,” said Eric Toner, a senior scientist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “They have both been fully vaccinated and hopefully the leaders they will meet with have likewise been vaccinated.”
In Biden’s case, each of the Group of Seven (G-7) leaders, as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin — all of whom Biden is scheduled to meet with — have been vaccinated.
Biden has taken a cautious approach to easing back to normal life and may continue to wear a mask, particularly if he’s meeting in a larger group indoors. Experts said masking or limiting who is interacting with the president could be prudent, particularly if the White House is unable to keep track of exactly which foreign officials circulating in and out of meeting rooms have gotten the vaccine.
In the United Kingdom, where Biden will attend meetings with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a G-7 summit and have an audience with Queen Elizabeth, more than 66 million vaccine doses have been administered, according to Reuters data, enough for nearly half the population assuming each person requires two doses.
Biden will then travel for meetings in Belgium, which has vaccinated roughly one-third of its population, according to Reuters.
Harris’s travels will take her to countries that have faced a tougher road to getting their populations vaccinated. Guatemala is still subject to a level four travel advisory from the U.S., meaning the State Department is advising Americans not to travel there.
Guatemala has administered more than 560,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine thus far, according to Reuters, which is enough for roughly 2 percent of its population assuming each person needs two doses.
Mexico, where Harris will meet with leaders after her Guatemala stop, has fared a bit better, vaccinating roughly 13 percent of its population.
The lower vaccination rate and higher amount of circulating virus in those countries will likely necessitate that Harris takes more precautions such as masking, limiting meeting sizes and testing staff when possible either before or after the trip.
The state of the vaccination campaign in Guatemala in particular is likely to put a spotlight on what the Biden administration is doing to help other countries as the U.S. inches toward the president’s goal of 70 percent of adults having at least one shot by the Fourth of July.
Symone Sanders, press secretary for the vice president, told reporters on a conference call previewing the trip that Harris would discuss cooperation on the pandemic with the leaders of both Guatemala and Mexico.
Harris spoke earlier in the week with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei ahead of the Biden administration’s announcement of its strategy for global vaccine distribution.
The administration on Thursday said the first phase will consist of 25 million donated doses, with 19 million of them shared through the COVAX global vaccine program. Guatemala would receive an allocation of doses through that contribution, the White House said, while Mexico would get a separate shipment of vaccines through a 6 million dose allotment for regional partners.
Those efforts, according to experts like Gostin, show that there’s still a ways to go in the fight against COVID-19.
“We’re at a transition point in the pandemic. We’re transitioning between a high-risk high mitigation strategy to normal. But we’re not quite at normal,” he said.