With Vaccination Goal in Doubt, Biden Warns of Variant’s Threat

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WASHINGTON — With the United States unlikely to reach his self-imposed deadline of having 70 percent of adults partly vaccinated against the coronavirus by July 4, President Biden on Friday stepped up his drive for Americans to get their shots, warning that those who decline risk becoming infected by a highly contagious and potentially deadly variant.

In an afternoon appearance at the White House, Mr. Biden avoided mentioning the 70 percent target that he set in early May and instead trumpeted a different milestone: 300 million shots in his first 150 days in office. But even as he hailed the vaccination campaign’s success, he sounded a somber note about the worrisome Delta variant, which is spreading in states with low vaccination rates.

“The best way to protect yourself against these variants is to get vaccinated,” the president declared.

His remarks came as his administration begins a final push to reach the July 4 goal over the next two weeks. Vice President Kamala Harris and Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, were both on the road on Friday, trying to drum up enthusiasm for the vaccine. Ms. Harris went to Atlanta, where she noted that less than half of people in Fulton County, where the city is, had at least one shot, and Mr. Becerra to Colorado.

Mr. Biden took office in January warning of a “dark winter” ahead, as deaths were near peak levels and vaccinations were barely underway, and he has generally tried to portray the virus as in retreat as he approaches six months in office.

A fact sheet distributed by the White House in advance of Friday’s remarks noted that in 15 states and the District of Columbia, 70 percent of adults or more have received at least one shot. “The results are clear: America is starting to look like America again, and entering a summer of joy and freedom,” the document proclaimed.

But rates of vaccination, and of infection, are uneven around the country.

And while those who took a “wait and see” attitude are becoming more open to getting vaccinated, 20 percent of American adults still say they will definitely not get the vaccine or will get vaccinated only if it is required, according to a poll released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

State health officials are trying to persuade the hesitant. In West Virginia, where just over a third of the population is fully vaccinated, Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said young people were proving especially difficult to win over.

“There was a narrative earlier in the pandemic that is really haunting us, which is that young people are really protected,” he said. “There’s a false belief that for many young people who are otherwise healthy that they still have a relatively free ride with this, and if they get infected, they’ll be fine.”

In Louisiana, where just 34 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and only 37 percent have at least a single dose, state officials announced on Thursday a new lottery for anyone in the state who had received one dose, with a grand prize of $1 million.

And in Wyoming, with vaccination rates almost identical to Louisiana’s, Kim Deti, a health department spokeswoman, said that “politicization is a concern” as officials seek to increase the number of people inoculated. But she said there were also other reasons for slowing rates in her state.

“We’ve had relatively low levels of Covid-19 illnesses statewide for a while now, which affects threat perception,” Ms. Deti wrote in an email. “With schools open all through the school year and most businesses open most of the past year, it has likely been harder for some people to see the personal need for vaccination.”

Speaking to students at a vaccination mobilization event at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia on Friday, Ms. Harris warned of the dangers of misinformation and framed the decision to get vaccinated as a way to take power back from the virus.


June 20, 2021, 9:45 p.m. ET

“Let’s arm ourselves with the truth,” she said. “When people say it seems like this vaccine came about overnight — no, it didn’t. It’s the result of many many years of research.”

When Mr. Biden set the July 4 goal in early May, he said meeting it would demonstrate that the United States had taken “a serious step toward a return to normal,” and for many people, that already seems to be the case. This week, California and New York lifted virtually all of their pandemic restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.

But the time frame is tight. An analysis by The New York Times shows that, if the rate of adult vaccinations continues on the seven-day average, the country will fall just short of Mr. Biden’s 70 percent goal, with 67.6 percent of American adults having had at least one shot by July 4.

As of Friday, 65 percent of adults have had at least one shot, according to data from the C.D.C. But the number of Americans getting their first shot has been dropping steadily, to about 200,000 a day from about 500,000 a day since Mr. Biden announced that June would be a “month of action” to reach his goal.

“I don’t see an intervention that could really bring back an exponential increase in demand to get the kind of numbers that we probably need to get to 70 percent,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health officials.

Experts say that from a disease control perspective, the difference between 67 percent and 70 percent is insignificant. But from a political perspective, it would be the first time Mr. Biden has set a pandemic-related goal that he has not met. He has continually set relatively modest targets for himself and exceeded them, including his pledge to get 100 million shots in the arms of Americans by his 100th day in office.

“The 70 percent target is not a hard and fast number; not hitting it exactly does not mean the sky is falling,” said Jen Kates, the director of global health and H.I.V. policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “On the other hand, it has symbolic importance. There has been a lot of emphasis on getting to that point and not hitting it is a reminder of how difficult the remaining stretch is going to be.”

In the White House, aides to Mr. Biden now say they are less concerned with reaching the 70 percent target than with having the nation feel the sense of normalcy that the president promised. Only a few months ago, they noted, he spoke of small family barbecues on July 4, whereas now big gatherings are possible.

To prove the point, the White House is also planning a big July 4 celebration of “independence from the virus,” with fireworks on the National Mall here in Washington and a gathering of more than 1,000 military personnel and essential workers joining Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris and their spouses to watch the festivities from the South Lawn.

In announcing the 70 percent target, on May 4, Mr. Biden made a personal plea to all of the unvaccinated: “This is your choice. It’s life and death.”

A month later, in early June, he tried to rally the nation by declaring a “month of action,” and proposing incentives, including an offer of free child care for parents and caregivers while they receive their shots. He also promised a national canvassing effort resembling a get-out-the-vote drive.

Since then, White House officials say, nonprofits and community groups around the country have been holding testing and vaccination events, particularly in Black churches. Planned Parenthood has invested in paid phone banking and the Service Employees International Union has joined with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials to host vaccination clinics and canvassing events.

Asked about the July 4 deadline this week, Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, avoided saying specifically that the nation would reach the 70 percent threshold by that date.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are continuing to get their first shots each day, and we’re going to get to 70 percent, and we’re going to continue across the summer months to push beyond 70 percent.”

Annie Karni contributed reporting from Washington, and Amy Schoenfeld Walker from Trumbull, Conn.