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White House looking to next pandemic challenge as July 4th signals a reopened nation

From free beer to front-door vaccine delivery, the administration may be running out of incentives to encourage vaccinations.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden used the July 4th weekend to tout America’s “independence from Covid-19” even as he falls short of his vaccination goal with pockets of the country still largely unvaccinated and a new more contagious variant quickly spreading.

It will take Biden another month to meet his goal, and the White House is already looking ahead, assessing the next challenge the pandemic will bring and recalibrating expectations.

Still, speaking from the White House Sunday, Biden compared the independence provided by the “heroic” U.S. vaccine effort to the power of the Declaration of Independence.

“Don’t get me wrong — COVID-19 has not been vanquished,” he said. “We all know powerful variants have emerged. But the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.”

Getting the shot, he said, is the “most patriotic” thing you can do.

White House officials acknowledged they have more work to do, but said the holiday weekend is also a time to celebrate the progress the country has made. White House Covid coordinator Jeffrey Zients said the country would remain on a "wartime footing" and redouble efforts to get more Americans vaccinated.

“The American people should be proud of the work we have collectively done and we want to recognize that progress and work on July 4,” Zients said Thursday. "People who are vaccinated have a high degree of protection and those who are not vaccinated are at risk."

At the White House, the July 4th holiday appeared much like it did before the pandemic with an event for about 1,000 essential workers and military families on the lawn and the traditional fireworks on the National Mall with no Covid-19 restrictions being enforced. Biden also traveled Saturday to a Michigan tourist destination packed for the holiday weekend.

The nation looks differently than even Biden predicted a few months ago.

In March while marking one year after the lockdown and as vaccines were becoming increasingly available, Biden said there was a “good chance” that people would be able to get together in small groups for backyard barbecues to celebrate Independence Day, but not large events and cautioned progress could stall with new variants.

Since then though, an additional 117 million people have gotten at least partially vaccinated and cases have dropped from more than 60,000 a day to just under 12,000, thanks to widespread vaccine availability.

A White House official said earlier that Biden was expected to "celebrate the progress the country has made in its pandemic response" in his speech Sunday evening, while also recognizing the more than 600,000 people who have died from the virus.

But the White House isn't ignoring warning signs that progress could stall. Cases increased 10 percent in the past week as the new hyper-transmissible Delta variant, first identified in India, now accounts for more than a quarter of cases in the U.S. and will likely be the dominate strain here soon, said CDC director Rochelle Walensky on Thursday.

“It is far too soon to declare mission accomplished,” said Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who helped advise Biden’s transition on Covid-19. “In communities with low vaccination rates, transmission remains as high as it was at the peak in January. Our goal should be to make sure we’ve vaccinated the most vulnerable among us, and we’re just not there yet.”

Biden will miss his goal of getting 70 percent of adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4th with 67 percent having gotten at least their first dose, according to CDC data. At the current pace of around 300,000 new people a day getting the shot, it will take about another month to reach the 70 percent mark, according to an analysis by NBC News.

Short of beginning to encourage mandates, it remains unclear what more the administration can do to encourage the remaining holds outs to roll up their sleeves. They have made the vaccine available within five miles of 90 percent of Americans, deployed mobile vaccine clinics, rolled out slick ad campaigns, sent out celebrity surrogates, and encouraged a range of incentives from free beer to million dollar lottery prizes for those vaccinated.

Part of the case the administration has been increasingly making is to warn that the new Delta variant appears to pose a greater risk to younger people than past strains of the virus. There has also been an effort by public health groups to highlight stories of younger people experiencing the long term effects of the virus, like fatigue, loss of taste and headaches.

“They're taming the pandemic in the U.S., but we're a long way from where we need to be," said Tom Frieden, a former CDC director under the Obama administration. "Nearly all of the deaths in the U.S. from Covid are now in the unvaccinated. Covid is down, but not out."

In the meantime, doctors say they are bracing for a fall and winter surge in parts of the country with low vaccination rates.

“If you look at numbers at the national level they may mislead you to think all is well, and we aren’t at risk for another fall and winter surge, but we are and it is just going to be regional,” said Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and assistant professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington.

In Michigan, where Biden was on Saturday for what the White House called a celebration of "our country’s progress against the virus," vaccination rates vary widely. In Oakland County, a wealthy suburb of Detroit, 65 percent of eligible residents have gotten at least their first dose while just 38 percent of those in Detroit have received one dose, according to city data.

Denise Fair, Detroit Chief Public Health Officer, said after trying everything, from pop up centers to visiting churches and barber shops, they are now going door to door with the vaccine, pairing clinicians waiting in mobile trucks with door knockers.

“We've made multiple options available for Detroiters. There's no longer an excuse because now we're even going door to door directly to people's homes to get the shot in the arm,” she told NBC.

Gupta said he doesn’t think the country will be able to feel like it is past the virus until researchers have longer term data about the effectiveness of the vaccine, which won’t happen until at least next year.

More people globally also need to get vaccinated to reduce the risk of a vaccine-beating variant that could send the country back to square one, he said. The Biden administration said they missed their goal of shipping 80 million doses of the vaccine overseas by the end of June, sending out just half that amount as they worked through logistical issues in individual countries.

“The gap between where we are now and fully spiking the football and feeling like we're past this is just scientific knowledge about how long does the vaccine protect us,” said Gupta. “Ultimately, I think the big unknown will be inequities and global access to the vaccine and will that inequity actually cause a variant to arise that renders the existing vaccines useless.”