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With COVID-19 vaccination goal in doubt, Joe Biden warns of variant’s threat

When Joe Biden set the July 4 goal in early May, he said meeting it would demonstrate that the United States had taken “a serious step toward a return to normal”

June 19, 2021 / 08:54 AM IST
United States is unlikely to reach self-imposed deadline of having 70% of adults partly vaccinated against the coronavirus by July 4. (PC-AP)

United States is unlikely to reach self-imposed deadline of having 70% of adults partly vaccinated against the coronavirus by July 4. (PC-AP)

With the United States unlikely to reach his self-imposed deadline of having 70% of adults partly vaccinated against the coronavirus by July 4, President Joe Biden on Friday stepped up his drive for Americans to get their shots, warning that those who decline risk becoming infected by a highly contagious and potentially deadly variant.

In an afternoon appearance at the White House, Biden avoided mentioning the 70% target that he set in early May and instead trumpeted a different milestone: 300 million shots in his first 150 days in office. But even as he hailed the vaccination campaign’s success, he sounded a somber note about the worrisome delta variant, which is spreading in states with low vaccination rates.

“The best way to protect yourself against these variants is to get vaccinated,” the president declared.

His remarks came as his administration begins a final push to reach the July 4 goal over the next two weeks. Vice President Kamala Harris and Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, were both on the road Friday, trying to drum up enthusiasm for the vaccine. Harris went to Atlanta, where she noted that less than half of people in Fulton County, where the city is, had at least one shot, and Becerra to Colorado.

Biden took office in January warning of a “dark winter” ahead, as deaths were near peak levels and vaccinations were barely underway, and he has generally tried to portray the virus as in retreat as he approaches six months in office.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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A fact sheet distributed by the White House before Friday’s remarks noted that in 15 states and the District of Columbia, 70% of adults or more have received at least one shot. “The results are clear: America is starting to look like America again, and entering a summer of joy and freedom,” the document proclaimed.

But rates of vaccination and of infection are uneven around the country.

And while those who took a “wait and see” attitude are becoming more open to getting vaccinated, 20% of American adults still say they will definitely not get the vaccine or will get vaccinated only if it is required, according to a poll released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

State health officials are trying to persuade the hesitant. In West Virginia, where just over one-third of the population is fully vaccinated, Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said young people were proving especially difficult to win over.

“There was a narrative earlier in the pandemic that is really haunting us, which is that young people are really protected,” he said. “There’s a false belief that for many young people who are otherwise healthy that they still have a relatively free ride with this, and if they get infected, they’ll be fine.”

In Louisiana, where just 34% of the population is fully vaccinated and only 37% have at least a single dose, state officials announced Thursday a new lottery for anyone in the state who had received one dose, with a grand prize of $1 million.

And in Wyoming, with vaccination rates almost identical to Louisiana’s, Kim Deti, a health department spokesperson, said that “politicization is a concern” as officials seek to increase the number of people inoculated. But she said there were also other reasons for slowing rates in her state.

“We’ve had relatively low levels of COVID-19 illnesses statewide for a while now, which affects threat perception,” Deti wrote in an email. “With schools open all through the school year and most businesses open most of the past year, it has likely been harder for some people to see the personal need for vaccination.”

Speaking to students at a vaccination mobilization event at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia on Friday, Harris warned of the dangers of misinformation and framed the decision to get vaccinated as a way to take power back from the virus.

“Let’s arm ourselves with the truth,” she said. “When people say it seems like this vaccine came about overnight — no, it didn’t. It’s the result of many, many years of research.”

When Biden set the July 4 goal in early May, he said meeting it would demonstrate that the United States had taken “a serious step toward a return to normal,” and for many people, that already seems to be the case. This week, California and New York lifted virtually all of their pandemic restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.

But the time frame is tight. An analysis by The New York Times shows that if the rate of adult vaccinations continues on the seven-day average, the country will fall just short of Biden’s 70% goal, with 67.6% of American adults having had at least one shot by July 4.

As of Friday, 65% of adults have had at least one shot, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the number of Americans getting their first shot has been dropping steadily, to about 200,000 a day from about 500,000 a day since Biden announced that June would be a “month of action” to reach his goal.

“I don’t see an intervention that could really bring back an exponential increase in demand to get the kind of numbers that we probably need to get to 70%,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Experts say that from a disease control perspective, the difference between 67% and 70% is insignificant. But from a political perspective, it would be the first time Biden has set a pandemic-related goal that he has not met. He has continually set relatively modest targets for himself and exceeded them, including his pledge to get 100 million shots in the arms of Americans by his 100th day in office.

“The 70% target is not a hard and fast number; not hitting it exactly does not mean the sky is falling,” said Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “On the other hand, it has symbolic importance. There has been a lot of emphasis on getting to that point, and not hitting it is a reminder of how difficult the remaining stretch is going to be.”

In the White House, aides to Biden now say they are less concerned with reaching the 70% target than with having the nation feel the sense of normalcy that the president promised. Only a few months ago, they noted, he spoke of small family barbecues on July 4, whereas now big gatherings are possible.

To prove the point, the White House is also planning a big July 4 celebration of “independence from the virus,” with fireworks on the National Mall and a gathering of more than 1,000 military personnel and essential workers joining Biden, Harris and their spouses to watch the festivities from the South Lawn.

In announcing the 70% target, on May 4, Biden made a personal plea to all of the unvaccinated: “This is your choice. It’s life and death.”

A month later, in early June, he tried to rally the nation by declaring a “month of action” and proposing incentives, including an offer of free child care for parents and caregivers while they receive their shots. He also promised a national canvassing effort resembling a get-out-the-vote drive.

Since then, White House officials say, nonprofits and community groups around the country have been holding testing and vaccination events, particularly in Black churches. Planned Parenthood has invested in paid phone banking, and the Service Employees International Union has joined with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials to host vaccination clinics and canvassing events.

Asked about the July 4 deadline this week, Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, avoided saying specifically that the nation would reach the 70% threshold by that date.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are continuing to get their first shots each day, and we’re going to get to 70%, and we’re going to continue across the summer months to push beyond 70%.”

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Noah Weiland

c.2021 The New York Times Company
New York Times
first published: Jun 19, 2021 08:54 am

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