WASHINGTON — Echoing the increasingly urgent warnings made by his top medical advisers, President Biden cautioned Monday against “reckless behavior” that could prolong the pandemic.
“We have to give more shots in April than we did in March because we’re in the life-and-death race with the virus that is spreading quickly, with cases rising again,” Biden said at a briefing held at the White House. “New variants are spreading and, sadly, some of the reckless behavior we’ve seen on television over the past few weeks means that more new cases are to come in the weeks ahead.”
At the same time, he once again updated his own vaccination benchmarks, announcing that 20,000 local pharmacies would be empowered to administer the vaccines, bringing the total number of pharmacies giving shots to 40,000. His administration will also open what a White House news release described as “a dozen” mass vaccination sites across the nation.
Some 33 million doses of coronavirus vaccine will be made available this week, in what Biden described as an effort to “try to beat the renewed spread of this virus,” a spread that could be accelerated by the lifting of restrictions and the emergence of new strains of the pathogen. Some of those strains are much more transmissible than the original, or “wild type,” strain of SARS-CoV-2.
Biden has been pushing states to expand their vaccine eligibility, having earlier promised that every American adult would be eligible for a vaccine by the end of May. The White House said on Monday that 31 states had expanded eligibility so that 90 percent of Americans would be eligible by April 19.
By that day, Biden said in his White House address, 90 percent of Americans would have a vaccination site within 5 miles of their residence. The White House also said it would fund the federal Department of Health and Human Services with $100 million to “provide the high-intensity assistance” for elderly and otherwise vulnerable Americans “to get these individuals scheduled for and transported to vaccination.”
Biden has tried to frame the vaccination effort as a singularly American success. “My fellow Americans, look at what we have done in the past 10 weeks,” he said. “No other country has come close.”
That may be true as far as the scope of the effort involved in a country as large and populous as the United States. But, though the pace of vaccination has been steadily increasing, only 16 percent of the American population has been fully vaccinated. That is ahead of some European nations, which have struggled with the vaccine rollout, but far behind Israel, Chile and the United Arab Emirates, which have by far led the world in vaccination rates.
“We aren’t even halfway yet,” Biden acknowledged, trying to negotiate the complex currents of optimism, caution, frustration and yearning that seem to be informing the national mood.
The comment about reckless behavior was clearly a reference to scenes of crowded beaches in Florida, whose Republican governor has accused Biden of being a “lockdowner.” At the same time, Democratic governors have also become less cautious in recent weeks, despite signs that the virus is gathering strength once more.
At one point, Biden pleaded with governors to neither discard mask mandates nor politicize the act of mask wearing. “Please, this is not politics. Reinstate the mandate if you let it down,” the president said, in a pleading, forthright tone he sometimes deploys when frustrated with an intractable challenge.
In similar situations, former President Donald Trump’s instinct was to browbeat the opposition. With his lunchpail persona, Biden has tried to frame many of his political positions as rooted in common sense and basic decency.
The president has tried not to feud with governors, but he is also not above showing his frustration with them. At the end of the address, a reporter shouted a question at Biden, asking if “states should pause their reopening efforts.”
Biden does not engage in the kind of back-and-forth with reporters that Trump would routinely conduct on the South Lawn, often as his presidential helicopter, Marine One, roared nearby.
Nevertheless, the president did answer this time: “Yes.”
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