Vaccines had driven down the average daily death toll from COVID-19 from more than 3,400 at the start of the year to around 400 in early July.
It didn’t last.
On Thursday, with about 1,500 Americans dying of COVID-19 each day, according to ourworldindata.org, Biden announced new measures aimed at beating back the virus again.
Public health experts applaud the stepped-up efforts, including new vaccine mandates and increased access to testing. But some say they do not go far enough. And they note that the Biden administration’s mixed messaging deserves some of the blame for the current situation.
‘Pandemic of the unvaccinated’
Despite vaccines that are safe, effective, free and widely available, one-quarter of the adult population has not yet taken its first shot.
The highly contagious delta variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus has ripped through this unprotected population like California wildfire, overwhelming hospitals in parts of the country and dampening the economic recovery that was starting to take hold.
The United States has the highest death rate and the second-lowest vaccination rate among major industrialized nations, according to ourworldindata.org.
“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Biden said.
The United States is also unusual among industrialized nations for the level of political division over pandemic measures.
Resistance to COVID-19 restrictions that started among conservatives during the Trump administration has persisted under Biden.
Republican elected officials have pushed back against mask and vaccine mandates as unconstitutional infringements of personal liberty. The Republican governors of Texas and Florida have barred local school districts from requiring masks in classrooms.
Biden’s new plan will require teachers and federal employees to be vaccinated. It mandates that private businesses with more than 100 employees must require their workers to get the shots or be tested weekly.
Biden took aim in his speech Thursday at “elected officials actively working to undermine the fight against COVID-19.”
Those officials shot back.
“See you in court,” Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem wrote on Twitter.
South Dakota will stand up to defend freedom. @JoeBiden see you in court.
— Governor Kristi Noem (@govkristinoem) September 9, 2021
Experts say the administration has also undermined its own efforts with its inconsistent approach toward vaccine boosters.
Biden said in his speech Thursday that boosters will be available for eligible people as soon as the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorize them.
The administration says it is responding to research showing that “breakthrough” infections among vaccinated people are more common with delta than with previous variants, and that vaccinated people can still spread the virus. There is some indication that vaccine efficacy wanes with time, but it is not yet clear how significant that is.
Experts question if most people need boosters, however.
“Breakthrough” infections may be more common with delta, but they tend to be mild. Studies from around the world show that people who received both their shots (or one shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine) are protected extremely well from serious illness, hospitalization and death.
While boosters might be a good idea for the elderly and others whose immune systems tend to be weaker, “I don’t think that we have data yet that indicates everyone needs a booster,” infectious disease physician Monica Gandhi at the University of California-San Francisco told Muhabarishaji.
And focusing on the need for boosters undermines the effort to get people their first shots, she said.
“Saying in one breath, ‘Get vaccinated,’ and then in the second, ‘Well, they don’t actually seem to be working out well’ — I think it had a profound impact on the people who are reluctant to vaccinate,” Gandhi said.
The on-again, off-again guidance for masks hasn’t helped, either.
In May, the CDC took the unusual step of saying vaccinated people no longer had to wear masks, but unvaccinated people did.
It was a “very American” message, Gandhi said: ” ‘We’ll give you a prize if you get vaccinated.’ ”
But “no other country had differentially removed masks for one population,” she added. “Every country, when they lift masks, they just lift it for everyone.”
Overall, public health officials said the Biden administration is doing the right thing. The administration is mandating vaccines under its purview to make workplaces safe.
“It is not safe at this moment to return to a workspace where there are large numbers of unvaccinated people. It is just not,” said Brown University School of Public Health Dean Ashish Jha at a news briefing. “While I appreciate the rights of people who choose not to be vaccinated, people also have a right to be able to go to work and not get infected, not get sick and not die.”
Jha said the administration also should have required vaccination at colleges and universities and for interstate travel, areas where the federal government has jurisdiction.
“These things largely work,” he said. “People don’t love them, but they work.”