WASHINGTON, July 29 (Reuters) – When President Joe Biden took office, his administration made it clear its intention to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic by focusing on immunizing the country. With the Delta variant of the coronavirus now raging and large numbers of Americans rejecting vaccines, this strategy is under review.
When Biden, a Democrat, took over from Republican President Donald Trump on January 20, an estimated 400,000 people in the United States had died from COVID-19 and thousands more were dying every day. The vaccines had only just become available.
Biden’s team launched a major vaccine and incentive rollout campaign involving 42,000 pharmacies, dozens of mass vaccination sites, ride-sharing companies, a beer maker and 5,100 active-duty soldiers. Senior officials have deployed across the country to preach a sharp message: Getting the vaccine means a return to normalcy.
In many parts of the United States this has worked. Millions of people lined up for injections and, as the vaccination rate increased across the country, daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths declined.
But the focus on vaccines has been accompanied by a drop in COVID-19 testing, mixed messages about masking, and a failure to anticipate strong anti-vaccination sentiment, misinformation, and the virus’s own ability. quickly mutate into more formidable variants, some critics have said.
“To protect the country from COVID, you need to have multiple strategies,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “We have jumped on the bandwagon and the excitement of vaccines at the expense of other basic strategies in the pandemic. “
COVID-19 cases are on the rise in nearly 90% of jurisdictions in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates.
The new spike in cases has clouded what had been a full-steamed economic recovery, and could be particularly risky if consumers become more cautious and spending slows as unemployment benefits, rent moratoriums and other supports. begin to expire. Read more
“Vaccination remains the most important thing we can do to prevent the spread of the virus, and therefore we must pull all the levers to support vaccination,” said Carole Johnson, White House coordinator on COVID-19 testing .
White House officials said Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion pandemic relief program, known as the US bailout, has invested billions of dollars in COVID testing for schools and uninsured people.
UNDERESTIMATING THE ANTI-VAX MOVEMENT
Americans’ refusal to take free, widely available vaccines that protect them from serious illness and death has baffled Biden’s White House.
While vaccines largely protect people against contamination and transmission of the Delta variant, there are rare cases where fully vaccinated people contract the virus and may be able to transmit it.
Biden has increasingly referred to the pandemic as one of the unvaccinated.
“It’s just the unfortunate amalgamation of two things, and it’s a virus that has evolved to be extremely effective at spreading from person to person … superimposed on an almost inexplicable resistance to vaccinations,” said to Reuters Anthony Fauci, American expert in infectious diseases. .
Fauci said the federal government would at least partially rely on school and business immunization mandates for their students and employees to boost lagging immunization rates.
“If you can’t get people on their own (…) to do what is important for their own health and for the health of the country, then you are talking about pressure. And the pressure is a local mandate, ”he said.
About 163.3 million people, or 49.2% of the total United States population, have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Agency data shows a slight increase in the vaccination rate in recent weeks. Testing has also increased.
Many experts have suggested that vaccinating 70% or more of the population could help curb the transmission of COVID-19 through something called herd immunity, when combined with people who have developed disease. immunity following infection.
But the ability of the coronavirus to mutate rapidly into new, highly transmissible variants has cast doubt on the possibility of obtaining herd immunity.
As of July 27, the United States was set to vaccinate 70% of the entire population on December 16, much later than many developed economies, according to a Reuters analysis.
Politics is at least partly to blame.
Some Republican lawmakers declined to say whether they had taken a vaccine and opposed Biden’s efforts to get more people vaccinated.
The spread of disinformation has prompted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the Biden administration’s toughest political opponents, to plan vaccination ads funded with his re-election campaign money in his home state of Kentucky, the 79-year-old lawmaker said. Reuters.
Anti-vaccination sentiment did not come out of nowhere. Reuters / Ipsos polls showed reluctance to be ripe until 2020 and early 2021.
The White House has repeatedly fought back disinformation, particularly targeting social media platforms.
Dr Peter Hotez, vaccinologist and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said the Biden administration’s recognition of the “terrible impact” of the anti-vaccine movement was important, but he said the government could do more.
“Anti-science is arguably one of the biggest killers of the American people, and yet we don’t treat it as such. We do not give it the same scope as global terrorism, nuclear proliferation and cyber attacks, ”he added. he said.
The Kaiser Family Foundation said earlier this month that its surveys showed Democrats were much more likely to say they had been vaccinated than Republicans.
Former Trump administration officials argue that Biden should have given his predecessor credit for pushing rapid vaccine development, in order to increase vaccination rates among his supporters.
Trump, who continued to falsely claim he won the 2020 election, is the only living president who did not participate in public service announcements to encourage people to get vaccinated.
The White House has rejected criticism that it has not engaged Trump more.
The Biden administration has sought to create incentives for people of all political stripes by stressing, in accordance with CDC guidelines updated in the spring, that those who received their shots could move without covering their mouths and noses.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” Biden said in a May 13 speech at the White House Rose Garden.
But critics say the advice on wearing the mask has been confusing.
On Tuesday, the CDC partially reversed the course, encouraging vaccinated Americans to resume wearing masks in indoor public places in areas where the Delta variant is spreading rapidly. Read more
“I honestly think it’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube,” said Carlos del Rio, professor of medicine and infectious disease epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta, referring to the idea. to get people to hide again.
Meanwhile, as the Delta variant spreads, the lack of testing makes it more difficult to follow up with asymptomatic cases.
Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, Calif., Said rapid tests would help vaccinated people check themselves before traveling or dining at a restaurant.
“It is blatantly missing,” he said.
Biden’s US bailout has invested $ 4.8 billion for testing uninsured people and $ 10 billion for testing in schools, the White House said.
“The tests have tended to fluctuate with the cases,” said Johnson, the testing coordinator. “Because… we worked so hard to get people vaccinated, there weren’t that many people looking for tests. “
In 2020, US regulators worked at full speed to authorize dozens of COVID-19 tests, including rapid and low-cost antigen testing, with the goal of increasing national testing capacity to some 200 million per month. by the end of 2020.
But the demand for testing has declined as vaccination rates have increased. Earlier this month, Abbott Laboratories said it had laid off 400 workers at two of its testing facilities in response to falling demand.
Additional reports by Carl O’Donnell and Howard Schneider; Editing by Heather Timmons, Caroline Humer and Grant McCool
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