Biden faces pivotal moment with COVID-19 speech
President Biden is facing rising COVID-19 challenges as he prepares to lay out new steps in the pandemic fight on Thursday.
The president will use a speech on Thursday to try to demonstrate he has a handle on the situation.
But after the pandemic receded in the United States earlier in the summer, the highly contagious delta variant has fueled a new spike, rising to roughly 150,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths per day.
This spike is different from those of last year, in that vaccines are now widely available, meaning the risk is now overwhelmingly for the unvaccinated.
While experts say there certainly is more the federal government can do, they also say part of the challenge is that a segment of the American population is simply refusing to get the vaccine, allowing the virus to continue to spread.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said it is important to “identify what the problem is here, and that is the anti-vaccine movement.”
“This isn’t like what it was last year,” he added. “This is willful.”
Despite a major push from the Biden administration, the U.S. is now well behind many other developed countries in terms of its vaccination rate. In Canada, 69 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, compared to just 53 percent in the U.S., according to a tracker from The New York Times. Sixty-five percent of the United Kingdom’s population is vaccinated, and 78 percent are vaccinated in Portugal.
Numbers are rising, with 75 percent of the 18 and up population having had at least one shot. But just 64 percent of the adult population in the U.S. is fully vaccinated.
The Biden administration has praised private sector vaccine mandates in recent weeks, and issued some of its own, like for the military, but experts have been calling for more actions around mandates as one of the few ways to break through to Americans who remain unvaccinated.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the six steps Biden will announce Thursday will include “requiring more vaccinations,” as well as boosting testing and “making it safer for kids to go to school.”
Psaki said that while the administration has made progress after fighting the pandemic for months, she acknowledged that “he’s going to lay out these six steps tomorrow because we have more work to do.”
The remarks come as the school year kicks off and some people go back to work after summer vacations.
On the political front, while much of the debate in Washington recently has centered on Afghanistan, COVID-19 plays a much larger role in most Americans’ daily lives and could play a major role in next year’s midterm elections.
Biden ran for the White House in large part on the argument that he could lead the United States through the pandemic, which he argued that former President Trump had mismanaged. As a result, the stumbles and general fatigue among the population with rising cases and deaths is a political threat.
“This 100 percent impacts him and every Democrat next year,” said one Democratic strategist.
This strategist also criticized Biden for voicing too much certainty that the nation had turned a corner in the spring and summer.
“With the pandemic, they made the same mistakes they made with Afghanistan. They declared victory in July even though Delta was spreading around the world but they did it for optics,” the strategist said.
The pandemic has certainly taken a significant turn for the worse since Biden declared on July 4th that “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus,” while also acknowledging that “we’ve got a lot more work to do.”
But others think the political fears are overblown.
“My take on this is that it’s very similar to [people saying] ‘the schools will be closed and Biden is doomed,’ which melted under the pesky fact of schools being opened,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale.
“So people are [a] little nervous now understandably,” he added. “But the Biden administration saved us on vaccinations from Trump and there will be a huge bump once it’s approved for kids. So it could be one month or three months or six months but a lot more people will be vaccinated, things will be open again and everything will be fine.”
In addition to vaccine requirements, experts say the Biden administration could do more to make rapid testing available, including in schools.
Adalja, the Johns Hopkins scholar, said there should be “free vending machines that have home tests in them.”
But much of the problem centers on the 25 percent of American adults who still have not gotten their first shot of vaccine.
“It’s pretty challenging given the political ecosystem that COVID lives within,” said Preeti Malani, an infectious disease expert at the University of Michigan.
“They’re willing to die over this belief,” she said of people refusing to get vaccinated.
While in uncommon situations even vaccinated people can become infected with COVID-19, the vaccines are still highly effective on what matters most: preventing hospitalization and death.
There is some evidence that the effectiveness of vaccines wanes over time, prompting the Biden administration to announce a plan to begin booster shots eight months after a person’s second shot, beginning the week of Sept. 20.
But that announcement drew concern from some experts that the administration was getting ahead of the process where health officials at the Food and Drug Administration review the data.
The administration stressed that its move is pending sign off from the FDA.
More broadly, Malani said the main problem is not getting people boosters, but rather reaching people who have not had any shots.
“We need to get first doses in people who are yet unvaccinated, and that’s what’s going to make all of us safer,” Malani said.