Two months after President Joe Biden pleaded with the nation to “bring it home” and stomp out the virus, the U.S. has officially fallen short of his goal to fully immunize 160 million Americans and to ensure 70% of adults get at least one shot by the Fourth of July.
It was a benchmark the new president set to try to rally a country eager to move on from lockdowns and other restrictions by promising a celebration of the nation’s “independence” from the virus.
Instead, with the rise of the delta variant, cities like Los Angeles and St. Louis are now urging even vaccinated residents to resume mask-wearing. And health officials are warning of hospitals filling up again in states like Missouri and Utah where large swaths of the population remain unvaccinated.
“I am not concerned there’s going to be a major outbreak – in other words, that we’re going to have another epidemic nationwide,” Biden told reporters on Friday. “But I am concerned lives will be lost.”
The White House this weekend is planning to celebrate anyway, hosting a barbecue on its South Lawn on Sunday with 1,000 first responders and military personnel. Earlier during the holiday weekend, on Saturday, Biden will visit a cherry farm in Traverse City, Michigan, to tout the economic resurgence marked by a positive June jobs report. Vice President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff also were hitting the road using the upbeat slogan “America’s Back Together.”
Advisers close to Biden have defended the decision to host the large White House Fourth of July party, pointing to other examples of progress with the pandemic — including a 90% drop in deaths and hospitalizations since January with more than three-fourths of seniors having become fully immunized.
“You can still celebrate at the same time as you get your message very, very clear …That is: If you are vaccinated, you have a high degree of protection. If you are not, you should wear a mask and you should think very seriously about getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser and the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
Still, the country is likely still several weeks away from the vision Biden laid out last May. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 66.7% of adults have received at least one shot, and just over 149 million adults are fully immunized.
At the current rate of immunizations – about 357,000 adults a day are getting their first shots — the U.S. will likely fall about 7.4 million doses short of Biden’s 70% goal.
The slow pace of vaccinations in the face of a fast-spreading variant is frustrating state officials, including GOP Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah, which is experiencing the highest number of hospitalized COVID patients – 257 – since Feb. 19. The number is a sharp increase from the 130 Utah residents hospitalized with COVID at the end of May.
Cox called it “demoralizing” for health care workers to hear from families whose loved ones swore the vaccine was unnecessary — some embracing “crazy conspiracy theories” — only to die or wind up seriously ill.
“What I’m here to say is that 95% of you don’t have to die and 95% of you don’t have to be hospitalized and go through that incredible pain,” he said at a Thursday press conference.
Biden first eyed the Fourth of July as a symbolic date to mark the end of the pandemic on March 12, during his first prime-time address to the nation.
“If we do our part, if we do this together, by July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Biden said, during a speech that commemorated the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic.
Since then, COVID case and death counts have plummeted, and the CDC has determined that vaccinated individuals are safe without a mask. Studies have found that vaccines protect people from serious illness as well as from spreading the virus to others.
The White House says it’s not confirming whether its Fourth of July guests are vaccinated, although it is urging attendees to test one to three days prior to the event. Otherwise, guests are told to follow CDC guidance to wear a mask if they are unvaccinated.
“We certainly feel comfortable and confident in moving forward with our event here at the White House and in individuals having barbecues in their backyards this weekend to celebrate the Fourth of July and America’s birthday,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Elsewhere across the country, however, health officials and governors were once again urging caution on a holiday weekend.
“Please, please, please don’t make it worse,” said Cox, the Utah governor.
ABC producer Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.
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