WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he wants 70% of American adults to receive at least one COVID-19 vaccination and more than half of U.S. adults to be fully vaccinated by the Fourth of July.
“Go get the shot as soon as you can,” Biden urged in a speech Tuesday afternoon.
The Independence Day milestone wouldn’t herald the achievement of long-awaited herd immunity when the spread of COVID-19 would be unlikely, senior administration officials emphasized. But it would significantly drive down infections and hospitalization and deaths in many communities.
While chief White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci had previously estimated herd immunity to be achievable with 60% to 70% of people vaccinated, the more infectious B.1.1.7 variant has pushed that estimate up.
Fauci and other infectious disease experts recently expressed doubt that the U.S. can reach herd immunity against COVID-19.
“Seventy percent coverage would provide a substantial degree of herd immunity but would likely not get us to the threshold … at which with normal, prepandemic contact patterns the virus would be unable to spread substantially,” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said in an email to CQ Roll Call. “Summer weather and less indoor contact may suppress transmission over the summer making this close to good enough, but I don’t think it will get us all the way there.”
The administration’s July 4 goal also signals that the administration expects the vaccination rate to continue at a slower pace than at its peak last month. The administration will shift away from mass vaccination clinics to walk-in appointments at retail pharmacies and other more localized places, according to a White House fact sheet.
“As we wind down mass vaccination sites, we’ll move to smaller locations even more convenient to the unvaccinated,” Biden said.
That shift was anticipated as public health authorities take a more personal approach to reaching vaccine-hesitant communities and people who lack access to health care, experts say. It also comes as the Federal Emergency Management Agency faces historic staffing shortages ahead of the beginning of hurricane season on June 1.
Biden encouraged Americans to text their ZIP code to the number 438829 to receive a text with a vaccination site near them.
The president is redirecting FEMA to support more pop-up clinics. As of last week, the administration had fallen short of 100 promised FEMA sites, but it launched 36 federally operated sites over the past four months, some of which are now temporarily closed, and 40 temporary pop-up sites as well as 10 mobile vaccination units.
The administration also said officials will ship the vaccine to more rural health clinics and direct $960 million to rural health clinics for vaccinations and additional testing. Officials will provide $380 million in additional funding to community organizations and $250 million to state and local governments for outreach, including educational materials and providing child care and transportation to people who need a shot.
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The White House is also working with businesses and athletic leagues to provide giveaways and discounts to incentivize people to get vaccinated.
About 1,000 businesses have taken advantage of a tax credit Biden announced last week to incentivize time off to get a vaccine.
The administration also plans to move to a “move or lose it” method for allocating shots.
States that do not draw down 100% of the shots they are allocated could elect to donate them to a pool where other states that are administering shots more quickly could access them. That pot of unused vaccines would also be allocated on a per capita basis.
Shots are typically distributed based on population size each week.
“If a state was to decide that in a given week they want less than 100% of their doses, that in turn goes into a pool, a federal pool, that states that want more than 100% could apply to get additional doses from,” said a senior administration official.
The official said the change was discussed with state governors on a call earlier Tuesday.
The shift could make vaccinations go more swiftly as they are redirected from more vaccine-hesitant regions to places with more demand, but it is also likely to exacerbate regional inequities.
About 312 million vaccines have been delivered, but just 247 million have been administered, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
“It’s getting the vaccine to people instead of vaccines sitting in freezers,” said Govind Persad, a bioethicist at the University of Denver. “We should have done this a long time ago.”
The administration is also readying a comprehensive plan to vaccinate as many of the country’s adolescents as possible before July 4 as well.
An emergency use authorization of the vaccine made by Pfizer could come as soon as late this week or next week, The New York Times reported Monday.
“FDA scientists are currently reviewing the data to decide if and when to authorize that vaccine,” Biden said. “I want American parents to know that if that announcement comes, we are ready to immediately move to make about 20,000 pharmacy sites across the country ready to vaccinate those adolescents as soon as the FDA grants its OK.”
Authorizing the two-shot vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds would be a welcome relief for many parents hoping to make the return to the classroom safer this fall.
But the expected authorization has spurred concerns among some infectious disease experts about global equity.
“The imminent FDA authorization of a vaccine for 12-15 year olds is great news, and adolescents should be able to access vaccine,” University of Florida epidemiologist Natalie Dean said in a tweet. “But in the short term, we must also grapple with the ethics of vaccinating adolescents ahead of high-risk adults in other countries.”
Persad at the University of Denver emphasized that the population of 12- to 15-year-olds is relatively small and said there are better ways to increase global supply.
“It’s like when parents tell their kids to eat broccoli because there are starving kids in other parts of the world. The broccoli they don’t eat won’t actually go to those other places,” he said.