There are fears that the disease hasn’t been sufficiently suppressed to avoid new spikes of infections this summer or when the weather turns cold. Still, it is indisputable that the country is in far better shape than this time last year — or even six months ago.
Though the nation will miss the vaccination benchmark Biden set out months ago, the President touted the success of his administration’s response Friday — which is a sharp contrast from former President Donald Trump’s months-long neglect of the pandemic as he concentrated on disputing a fair election at the end of his term. The Trump administration does deserve credit, however, for overseeing speedy development of the vaccines that the Biden administration has rolled out.
The President hailed “historic progress pulling our economy out of the worst crisis in 100 years,” and he said the economic growth was “driven in part by our dramatic progress in vaccinating our nation and beating back the pandemic.”
“Yes, we have more work to do to get America vaccinated and everyone back to work,” Biden said, alluding to the 5.9% unemployment rate. “We are aiming for full employment, and that means keeping our pace on job growth, including for Black, Hispanic and Asian workers. But this progress is testament to our commitment to grow this economy from the bottom up and the middle out.”
Disparities in vaccine uptake raise concern about ‘two Americas’
But for all of Biden’s optimism about a full recovery from the pandemic, there will be two very different July Fourth realities in this deeply polarized nation this weekend.
Fireworks, family visits and parties are safe for those who are fully vaccinated and can safely gather, according to public health officials. But there is a zone of high risk for the unvaccinated in vast swaths of the heartland, where mass events remain a danger. The two realities reflect the still-polarized nature of the pandemic — and the fact that some of the most vulnerable have ignored public health guidance for cultural and political reasons.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has cited his frustration about the growing gulf between what he has said could develop into “two Americas” — one where vaccination rates are high and the other where as few as 35% of the people are vaccinated. “You clearly have a high risk of seeing spikes in those selected areas,” Fauci told CNN’s Don Lemon on Tuesday night.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, worries about “two Covid nations.” He has argued that states where high percentages of the population are vaccinated — like Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine — may be able to withstand the Delta variant. But in other places, like southern Missouri, he said in an interview on CNN’s “Newsroom” Wednesday, where a small percentage of the population is vaccinated and the Delta variant is raging, “a lot of people are now going into intensive care units.”
“I think the CDC is trying too hard to make a one-size-fits-all policy recommendation,” Hotez said on CNN. “I think we have to look at the country by region and look at what I would call force of infection — how much the epidemic is raging — and then fine-tune our guidance.”
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky highlighted the marked difference in vaccination rates in various parts of the country during the administration’s Covid-19 briefing on Thursday, noting that about 1,000 counties in the United States have vaccination coverage of less than 30%, creating significant vulnerabilities in those communities, which are primarily in the Southeast and Midwest. It is in those places that the US is seeing a surge in cases and hospitalizations, due to what Walensky said was likely the combination of the spread of the Delta variant and low vaccination rates.
Underscoring the potential risk, Walensky said early data suggests that nearly all the Covid-19 deaths over the past six months were in unvaccinated people. While urging the unvaccinated to wear masks and avoid crowds this holiday weekend, she encouraged those in vulnerable communities to get vaccinated: “The suffering and loss we are now seeing is nearly entirely avoidable.”
American parents with young children are part of a different vaccination divide. With vaccines still unavailable for those under 12, families with young kids are living in a different reality — often still masking up — particularly in areas where the Delta variant is spreading rapidly. In California, for example, the Covid-19 positivity rate has doubled in recent weeks, and the Delta variant represents 36% of all new Covid-19 cases, State Public Health Officer Tomás Aragón said Friday.
Political divide on vaccines defies any easy solution
Ironically, some of the quintessentially American traits that are indirectly celebrated on July Fourth — independence, distrust of authority and, above all, the fierce instinct to protect individual liberty, are among those that have held the country back from fully conquering the virus within its own borders.
Early in the pandemic, Trump played into these characteristics, by downplaying the need to wear masks, for example, as he tried to politicize the virus in the service of his reelection campaign. He carved out the role of an effective voice for his base by undermining mask recommendations even as he announced them from the White House. In retrospect, the ex-President might have saved tens of thousands of lives had he had a different attitude. And widespread distrust of public health guidance that he helped foster is still an impediment to beating the pandemic.
The prospect for the winter is a grim one — in places — public health experts say. The US could be looking at high rates of infection in Trump states where vaccine penetration is low. Ultimately this could not just cause a terrible humanitarian toll, it also could hamper Biden’s hopes of declaring the pandemic over — a key goal for his 2022 midterm pitch to help Democrats maintain control of Congress.
As a Democratic President, Biden cannot penetrate the conservative media bubble, which means he can’t just fix this by setting targets and giving speeches. The White House is sending response teams to several low-vaccine states to target the Delta variant, officials said on Thursday.
For all the distance we have come, there are fears that it’s still possible to slip back — especially in the South and Midwest, where millions of Americans have spurned the vaccines that could give them their lives back.
Zients on Thursday touted the administration’s vaccine rollout and said the administration had exceeded its expectations of where it would be by July Fourth, despite missing the original goal.
He said the administration will celebrate the progress on July Fourth but that the work won’t stop: “Our resolve to reach those who have not yet gotten their shot is only strengthened because of the spread of the Delta variant.”