White House embarks on push to vaccinate hard-to-reach Americans
The White House is stepping up its vaccination push amid an encouraging decline in COVID-19 cases but during a time in which the remaining contingent of unvaccinated people is becoming harder to reach.
President Biden announced a slew of new partnerships this week, from free beer to free child care, as incentives to boost falling vaccination numbers one month out from a July 4 deadline for getting 70 percent of the country’s adult population at least partially vaccinated.
Vice President Harris will also be traveling the country to encourage vaccinations, a tour the White House said will be focused on the south, where vaccination rates are generally lower.
The push comes at an optimistic moment for the U.S., as COVID-19 cases and deaths have plunged while at the same time, the roughly 40 percent of unvaccinated people in the U.S. remain at risk.
Overall, though, reported cases and deaths are at their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The U.S. is averaging about 15,000 new cases per day, a sharp decline from the peak in January, when the average reached over 250,000 per day.
“We certainly turned a corner,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University. “Where we are now cannot be compared to where we were a year ago.”
Still, she said she is concerned that “vaccination rates have fallen off a cliff.”
The U.S. is averaging just more than 1 million shots per day, far below the peak of over 3 million per day in April, according to figures from Our World in Data.
There is also a stark variation in vaccination rates that falls along party lines between red states and blue states.
Vermont has 71 percent of its population with at least one dose, the most of any state, compared to Mississippi, at the bottom of the list, with just 34 percent, according to figures from The New York Times.
Among adults 18 and over, Biden said Wednesday that 12 states had reached the mark of 70 percent with at least one shot, and he expected more to hit the target this week.
Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases expert, said Thursday on CNN that the U.S. is now at a high enough vaccination rate that another spike in cases is unlikely, but he said he worries about pockets of the country with lower vaccination rates.
“I think given the country as a whole, the fact that we have now about 50 percent of adults fully vaccinated, and about 62 percent of adults having received at least one dose, as a nation I feel fairly certain you’re not going to see the kind of surges we’ve seen in the past,” Fauci said. “What I am concerned about is those states in which the level of vaccination is low, that you may continue to see higher levels of cases as we get into the summer.”
To try to address the areas with lower vaccination rates, Biden is turning to a range of incentives and initiatives.
Major child care providers will be offering free child care to people getting their shots. A partnership with Black-owned barbershops will encourage vaccinations at key gathering places in many communities. Anheuser-Busch will give out free beer once the country reaches the 70 percent threshold, and DoorDash is offering $2 million to community health centers to incentivize vaccinations, the White House said.
At the same time, the situation has improved enough in the U.S. that the White House is shifting more of its attention to helping other countries, many of which are facing far worse outbreaks amid a shortage of vaccines.
The White House on Thursday outlined its plan to donate the first 25 million doses out of 80 million doses it is promising for other countries by the end of June. Three-quarters of the initial wave will go to the World Health Organization-backed vaccine program COVAX, with the remaining quarter directly given to other countries.
In the United States, where the picture is far better, Preeti Malani, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Michigan, said, “I’m extremely optimistic.”
She said it is within reach to “have a big party” on the Fourth of July, as Biden has envisioned.
“America is headed into the summer dramatically different from last year’s summer: a summer of freedom, a summer of joy, a summer of get-togethers and celebrations,” Biden said Wednesday.
Questions still remain surrounding whether vaccine-resistant variants will develop, highlighting the need to cut down on transmission around the globe to reduce the chances of the virus mutating.
Another question is how long the immunity of those who are vaccinated will last and whether fully-vaccinated people will need booster shots in the future.
So far, there is encouraging news on both fronts, Malani said, with no vaccine-resistant variant yet, adding “everything we’re learning is the duration [of immunity] may be longer than expected.”
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released at the end of May found that as more people get a shot, the percentage of adults who have not received a shot but want one “as soon as possible” has fallen to 4 percent. That leaves 13 percent saying they will “definitely not” get the shot, and a less opposed, but on-the-fence group at 12 percent saying they want to “wait and see.”
“At this point, there’s almost no low-hanging fruit, but there’s a path toward a slow-but-steady increase in vaccination rates through improved access, information, persuasion and incentives,” KFF President Drew Altman said in a statement.
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