Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 response and the vaccination programme in the State Dining Room of the White House on May 4, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: President Joe Biden, confronting lagging vaccinations that threaten his promise of near normalcy by July 4, Tuesday overhauled the strategy to battle the pandemic, shifting from mass vaccination sites to more local settings to target younger Americans and those hesitant to get a shot.

In a speech at the White House, Biden said he was launching a new phase in the fight against the coronavirus, with a goal of at least partly vaccinating 70% of adults by Independence Day and with a personal plea to all of the unvaccinated: “This is your choice. It’s life and death.”

After three months of battling supply shortages and distribution bottlenecks, the Biden administration is confronting a problem that the president said was inevitable: Many of those who were most eager to get vaccinated have already done so. Vaccination sites at stadiums once filled with carloads of people seeking shots are closing, and states that once clamoured for more vaccines are finding that they cannot use all of the doses that the federal government wants to ship to them.

Yet the administration’s own health experts say tens of millions more Americans must be vaccinated before the infection rate is low enough to return to what many people consider ordinary life.

The administration now wants tens of thousands of pharmacies to allow people to walk in for shots. It has also ordered up pop-up and mobile clinics, especially in rural areas, and it plans to devote tens of millions of dollars for community outreach workers to provide transport and help arrange child care for those in high-risk neighbourhoods who want to be vaccinated.

Family doctors

To build confidence in vaccines, federal officials plan to enlist the help of family doctors and other emissaries who are trusted voices in their communities.

In a new effort to match supply with demand, federal officials informed states Tuesday that if they did not order their full allocation of doses in any given week, that vaccine would be considered part of a federal pool that is available to other states that want to order more. Until now, if states failed to order all of the doses allotted to them on the basis of population, they could carry over that supply to the next week.

Biden also announced a new federal website and phone number that will help people find the vaccination site closest to them. “We’re going to make it easier than ever to get vaccinated,” he promised.

The administration is hoping for an uptick in vaccinations if the Food and Drug Administration authorises the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for adolescents ages 12 to 15 by early next week, as expected. The president said adolescents were important in the fight against the virus because while they are not as susceptible to severe disease, they can still get sick and infect others.

Experts say the United States may never reach herd immunity, the point at which the virus dies out because of a lack of hosts to transmit it. And the president suggested that the nation was still far from beating the pandemic.

While the vast majority of seniors have been vaccinated, “We’re still losing hundreds of Americans under 65 years of age every week,” Biden said. “And many more are getting seriously ill from long stretches at a time.” He warned that the nation would be vaccinating people into the fall.

Focus to shift

Still, the president said, if 70% of the nation’s adults have received at least one shot of vaccine by July 4, “Americans will have taken a serious step toward a return to normal.”

To get there, Biden said, the government must shift the focus from mass vaccination sites to doctors’ offices, pharmacies and other local settings, and mount a far more concerted effort to reach those who are reluctant to get shots or simply figure it is too much trouble.

“We’re going to keep at it,” the president said, expressing optimism that “most people will be convinced by the fact that their failure to get the vaccine may cause other people to get sick and maybe die.”

As of Tuesday, more than 106 million people in the United States were fully vaccinated and more than 56% of adults - or almost 148 million people - had received at least one shot. That has contributed to a steep decline in infections, hospitalisations and deaths across all age groups, federal officials said.

But despite a flood of doses available, the pace of vaccination has fallen off considerably over the past two and a half weeks. Providers are now administering an average of about 2.19 million doses per day, about a 35% decrease from the peak of 3.38 million reported on April 13, according to data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden called for 160 million adults to be fully vaccinated by July 4 - an increase of 55 million people, or more than 50%. About 35 million more adults would have to receive at least one shot to reach the president’s goal of 70% of adults who are at least partly protected. While this next phase of the vaccination effort is “easier because I don’t have to put together this massive logistical effort,” Biden said, “in the other sense it’s harder, it’s beyond my personal control.”

Until now, White House officials have stuck to formulas that allocated vaccine doses to the states by population, and they were extremely reluctant to send doses of approved vaccines abroad. The administration had been unwilling to shift doses to states that were faster to administer them out of a concern that rural areas or underserved communities would lose out to urban or richer areas where residents were more willing to get shots.

But as the pace of vaccination slows, officials have decided that the benefits of a looser system outweigh that risk.

States that want more than their allotment will be able to request up to 50% more doses, officials said. States that do not claim all of their doses one week will not be penalized and will still be able to request their full allotments the next week, officials said.