The Biden administration had hoped this week would serve as a moment of celebration with more than 100 million US adults now fully vaccinated and White House officials attempting to wear down vaccine hesitancy by playing up the new-found freedoms for those who have gotten their shots – like the ability to unmask when socializing outside with a small group of friends.
Despite declining case and death rates, many Americans are still living their lives in a frustrating gray area at a time when only about 30% of the population is fully vaccinated. The potential return to normalcy seems so tantalizingly close. Yet many parents are still struggling with the distractions of working from home with children underfoot – desperate for students to get fully back in school.
The new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance this week still recommended that fully vaccinated people wear masks for common indoor activities, from eating at an indoor restaurant to attending church, even though the CDC loosened the guidelines for some outdoor activities. And as many Americans try to sort through the confusion of when to mask and unmask, they are also trying to understand whether summer travel is safe, especially with kids, and how long it will take for this nation to halt the spread of the virus given that a quarter of adults are showing stubborn resistance to getting vaccinated as variants continue to circulate.
There is still a wide range in Covid-19 messaging about what people can and cannot do at the state, local and federal levels. As an example, the Transportation Security Administration on Friday extended the Biden-era mandate for travelers to wear masks in airports and on airplanes, trains, buses and boats even though some governors have allowed mask requirements in their states to expire. The TSA rule, which was set to expire May 11, will now last until September 13.
Members of Biden’s Covid-19 response team tried to project optimism and forecast brighter days ahead for vaccinated Americans on Friday. Both Covid-19 case numbers and deaths are down, with the US reaching the lowest seven-day average of new deaths reported since last July, according to a new CNN analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.
Biden’s First 100 Days
White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients noted Friday that the US shipped out its 300 millionth dose this week, but once again stressed that the pace of vaccinations would “moderate and fluctuate” amid reports of a dropoff in vaccinations in some areas. Facing persistent questions from reporters about the dwindling demand for vaccines, he and his colleagues emphasized their intensifying focus on making it easier for busy and home-bound Americans to get shots while combating vaccine misinformation to get more people vaccinated.
“It’s not unexpected, as we entered this next phase, that there will be more of a balance between supply and demand,” Zients said during Friday’s Covid-19 task force briefing. “That makes it even more important that we make it easier for people to get vaccinated, that we continue, as (Surgeon General) Dr. (Vivek) Murthy talked about, to build vaccine confidence and ensure equity.”
“What is unexpected is how fast we’ve gotten here,” Zients added. “We know this next phase won’t be easy, but neither was getting to 220 million shots in arms in the first 100 days.”
’Flood the zone with accurate information’
A new CNN poll this week showed that a quarter of American adults say they will not try to get a coronavirus vaccine, and Republicans were the group most likely to say they would not seek a shot. Some 44% of Republicans expressed that view; compared with 28% of independents and 8% of Democrats. Resistance to getting a vaccine was strongest among younger Republicans.
Because of that hesitancy within the GOP, some medical experts had hoped that former President Donald Trump would film a public service announcement encouraging people to get the vaccine. The former President told Fox News last week that he would “certainly do it,” but so far has not.
Overall, about 63% of Americans said they would feel comfortable returning to their regular routines in the CNN poll; 32% said they would not and 4% said they already have.
Americans’ ability to return to their daily rituals safely will depend on the government keeping up the pace of vaccinations. Most scientists say that to get to the point where the spread of virus can be halted, which is known as herd immunity, between 70% and 85% of the population must be protected either by antibodies from natural infection or vaccination.
Given the importance of vaccinating young Americans to achieve that threshold, the recent remarks by popular Spotify podcast host Joe Rogan have generated intense controversy this week after he inaccurately stated that healthy young people did not need to get vaccinated.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the White House approach to combating that kind of vaccine misinformation will be to “flood the zone with accurate information.”
Psaki told reporters that the White House is in the process of investing $3 billion in public campaigns across the country, a combination of funding for paid media and social media, as well as money for local programs that can harness the influence of trusted community leaders to persuade Americans to get vaccinated.
Pressure to reopen
Even as the pace of vaccinations slows, governors and mayors in both red and blue states are under pressure to get their economies reopened. Biden has said he hopes that Americans can get together in small groups to celebrate by July 4.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that New York City’s indoor dining capacity can expand to 75% on May 7. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall fueled in part by anger about his Covid-19 restrictions last year, has said he hopes his state will be fully open by June 15, and Disneyland in California opened its gates Friday at limited capacity for the first time in more than a year.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that he plans to fully reopen the city by July 1 because “what we’ve seen in the last weeks has been stunning progress in terms of reducing the levels of Covid – greatly increasing the numbers of vaccinations,” he told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on “New Day” Friday. The city will be subject to state guidelines, and a day earlier Cuomo, who is also a Democrat, said he hoped New York’s cities could be open before that point, but said he was “reluctant to make projections” because he believes they “are irresponsible.”
“The people are getting vaccinated and fighting back Covid, and it’s working,” de Blasio said when asked to respond to Cuomo’s comments. “They’re ready for a comeback.
Asked about whether a July 1 reopening was too soon for New York, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said in the White House Covid-19 press briefing Friday that officials remain focused on “getting people vaccinated, decreasing the case rates.”
“If we can continue at this pace, case rates are coming down, vaccinations going up, then I think July 1 would be a reasonable target,” she said.
But when pressed on that question – whether Americans would still be wearing masks at restaurants and arenas indoors, for example – she said she didn’t want to make predictions about what the nation’s life would look like by then.
“This virus has tricked us before,” she said.