WASHINGTON (AP) — Two weeks after celebrating America’s near “independence” from the coronavirus, President Joe Biden is facing the worrying reality of increasing cases and deaths — and the limitations on his ability to address the ongoing vaccine hesitancy responsible before the summer setback.
Cases of COVID-19 have tripled in the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are increasing among unvaccinated people. While prices are still plummeting from their January highs, officials are concerned about reversing trendlines and what they view as unnecessary illness and death. And cases are expected to continue to rise in the coming weeks.
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While the national emergency may have faded, officials say the outbreak is now a more localized crisis in communities where not enough people are rolling up their sleeves.
“Look, the only pandemic we have is an unvaccinated one,” Biden said Friday, echoing comments made earlier in the day by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The rising numbers are caused by major foci of infection among the more than 90 million eligible Americans who have not yet received injections. Only four states with low vaccination rates accounted for 40% of new cases last week, and nearly half of them came from Florida alone.
However, there is little appetite in the White House for a return to broad mandates for masks or other measures, as 161 million Americans have already been fully vaccinated.
Reflecting that mindset, Walensky said Friday that in low-vaccination areas with increasing cases, “local policymakers might consider whether masking would be something that would benefit their communities at the time.”
Some communities are performing. Los Angeles County on Thursday reintroduced the requirement that masks must be worn in most indoor settings regardless of vaccination status, and Las Vegas health officials recommended Friday that employees and customers in the tourist hotspot wear face coverings indoors.
With three highly effective vaccines approved for use in the US, the Biden administration believes the most effective way to attack the virus is not to try to slow its spread with mass masking and the like—something the US showed it can do. was not very good last year – but to continue to emphasize the importance of vaccinations.
It’s not an easy solution. Many Americans remain resistant or unmotivated to get shots, despite months of often creative efforts by federal and state officials and the private sector to disseminate information about vaccine safety and accessibility.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy added that while government can play an important role, “this must be an ‘all of the above’ strategy with everyone involved,” including schools, employers, tech companies and individuals.
In recent days, the government has turned its attention to younger Americans. It enlisted pop star Olivia Rodrigo for a day-long visit to the White House on Wednesday with Biden and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, which was heavily documented for social media. Younger people are at the lowest risk of ill effects from the virus and have proven to be one of the least likely people to be vaccinated.
But another large group is proving to be an even more difficult challenge: the Republicans. The White House has long acknowledged that given rampant vaccine misinformation and the nation’s partisan divisions, it would have little success convincing the GOP to get involved. Instead, government officials in recent days have ramped up criticism of officials and social media companies for spreading or not condemning the spread of vaccine misinformation among the GOP.
“They’re killing people,” Biden said of social media companies Friday, a day after Surgeon General Murthy warned that false information about vaccines spreading on platforms like Facebook poses a public health risk to the nation.
Efforts for commentary from major platforms were not immediately successful.
The new expression of government frustration comes amid near-disbelief that tens of millions of Americans continue to refuse to be vaccinated, unnecessarily prolonging the pandemic and costing lives, as health officials emphasize that nearly all serious cases and deaths are now preventable.
According to the CDC, more than 99% of COVID-19 deaths and 97% of hospitalizations are among people who have not been vaccinated.
The pandemic is now “a pandemic that primarily threatens unvaccinated people,” White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Ziens said Friday.
He said the Biden administration expects the number of cases to increase in the coming weeks due to the spread in communities with low vaccination rates. But Zients added that there is a sign that the increased cases are pushing more people in those communities to get vaccinated, reporting that “States with low vaccination rates with the highest cases of disease are seeing their vaccination rates rise faster than the national average.
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