The Memo

The Memo: Biden moves into new phase of COVID-19 fight

President Biden kick-started a new phase in the fight against COVID-19 Tuesday, but it's one that could prove tough for his administration.

Biden, who trumpeted the rapid progress in vaccinations up to now, is turning his focus toward those who are reluctant to get shots even when eligible.

The president never used the term "vaccine hesitancy." Yet, according to independent experts, that phenomenon is now the biggest barrier to the nation's recovery from a pandemic that has claimed more than 575,000 lives in the United States.

"There is no question that we have passed the tipping point," said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown Law School professor who specializes in public health. Gostin said the previous problem of scarcity of vaccines had vastly diminished but "now the vaccines are chasing the people."

If Biden proves unable to overcome the resistance, he could pay a political price.

The public have given high marks to Biden for his response to the pandemic, which has included a huge ramp-up of vaccine production and distribution and a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. 

There has been some softening in his polling numbers on the topic recently. Still, they remain in firmly positive territory.

An Economist-YouGov poll conducted April 25-27 indicated that 54 percent of adults approve of Biden's response to COVID-19 while just 34 percent disapprove.

However, the same poll also flashed warning signs, including the degree to which the whole issue of COVID-19 falls victim to polarization.

When the pollsters asked whether people would get a vaccine when one became available to them, 38 percent said they had already been vaccinated and an additional 23 percent said they would get one if they could. But 15 percent said they were not sure, and 25 percent answered with a definitive "no."

Among Republican voters, more than 1 in 3 - 36 percent - said they would not take the vaccine.

Biden sought to make the case for further vaccination in as nonpartisan a way as he could on Tuesday.

He noted that two of the vaccinations currently in use were approved during former President Trump's time in the White House and thanked "prominent conservatives" who have advocated for vaccination, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The administration is introducing a new system where states can decline to take their full allotment of vaccines on a weekly basis. The surplus would then go into a national pool and could be distributed to states facing a more acute need.

Biden also promised to make it easier for people to find a nearby vaccine site, including by using a website or by texting their ZIP code to a number he gave out at his news conference: 438829.

Biden's new goal is to get at least one vaccine shot administered to 70 percent of the adult population by July 4. At the moment, according to the administration, 150 million Americans have received at least one shot and more than 105 million are fully vaccinated.

One question for Biden, however, is whether vaccine-resistant Americans are listening to him. 

There are some encouraging signs, such as statistics showing decreasing vaccine hesitancy among African Americans. But that hesitancy has proven more enduring in white rural America, the heartland of conservatism.

The Economist-YouGov poll asked respondents about their level of trust in the medical advice provided by various people and institutions.

Overall, 42 percent trusted Biden and 38 percent did not. Among Republican voters, just 11 percent trusted him and a huge 73 percent did not.

The same Republican resistance was seen regarding the nation's leading expert on infectious diseases, Anthony Fauci. Sixty percent of GOP voters distrusted Fauci. Just 19 percent trusted him. 

A plurality of Republican voters, 46 percent, even distrusted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while only 32 percent expressed trust.

Predictably, the findings were reversed when it came to Trump. "Medical advice" from the former president was trusted by only 32 percent of the overall population, but by 66 percent of Republican voters. 

Trump was vaccinated in January, but that did not become publicly known until early March.

Kavita Patel, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a health care expert, said of Biden's proposals, "I don't know how this overcomes hesitancy. I know that sending doses to doctors and pharmacies is the right thing to do - but it does not overcome hesitancy."

She advocated for "an incredible private-public effort" to let people know that normality can only return when most people are vaccinated, as well as reinforcement of the message that "it's not about you - it's about individuals being vaccinated for their families, their loved ones."

Biden sought to keep optimism in the mix at his Tuesday news conference.

"The light at the end of the tunnel is actually growing brighter and brighter," he said.

But the final stretch of the road back to normality could be the hardest one - and a perilous one for the president.

 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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