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US Prez Biden’s Covid vaccine push faces hesitancy, variants after his 100 days in the office

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date
US Prez Biden’s Covid vaccine push faces hesitancy, variants after his 100 days in the office

Washington: The United States President Joe Biden, within 100 days in office, has overseen ramped up distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine, reached deals for enough shots for all adults, and sent troops to staff mass-vaccination centers as part of an expanded federal effort to battle the pandemic.

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However, the challenges facing the president have shifted and the administration is now confronting slipping demand for vaccines (complicating efforts to reach herd immunity and a return to normalcy) and a proliferation of cases in countries including India. Amid this heaping pressure, Biden is expected to help the rest of the world in fighting the virus. While, Public health experts have also warned that highly transmissible variants like the one ravaging India could risk another wave of outbreaks in the U.S. and other countries.

The uncertainty about how long vaccines offer protection against surging Covid-19 could mean booster-shot campaigns will be needed. And while the U.S. vaccination push has so far centered on adults, the administration is shifting its focus to people under age 16. Some surveys have found that some parents are hesitant to vaccinate their children.

“There’s still more work to do to beat this virus. We can’t let our guard down,” Mr. Biden said in his address to Congress Wednesday, even as he hailed progress against the pandemic in his first 100 days as “one of the greatest logistical achievements” the country had seen.

Earlier, the administration scaled up its allocations of supplies and support to states to drive down infections. The challenges ahead underscore how complicated it will be to vanquish the pandemic.

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Administration officials say Covid-19 remains a priority for Biden, even as he turns to a sweeping jobs and infrastructure push in Congress. The president carries a card in his pocket with the most recent tally of coronavirus deaths, which he often pulls out at public appearances.

The White House has said it would have enough vaccine supply for all adult Americans by the end of May. Forty-three percent of the population has received at least one dose so far, and more than half of the eligible population has gotten one. Healthcare experts say 75% to 80% of people would need to be fully vaccinated to reach the herd immunity needed for a return to normal life.

“We have been thrilled with the increase in vaccine supply,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, who also praised Mr. Biden for repeatedly stressing social distancing and mask wearing.

But many states are now seeing more appointments go unclaimed as demand dips, with some local public health departments asking for a pause in allocations from the federal government because doses on hand have yet to be used. Dozens of counties in Iowa have declined new vaccination shipments because of a drop in demand.

“Vaccine hesitancy is beginning to become a real factor,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said at a recent news conference.

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To incentivize shots, the White House earlier this month gave details of a tax credit for small businesses to offset paid leave for employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine dose. It was funded by the Covid-19 relief package Mr. Biden signed into law. The administration also launched a public education campaign targeting rural areas and communities of color.

Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said some people are still finding it too difficult to get the vaccine. “One big dilemma,” he said, “is how to get it to clinical providers.”

Some vaccines must be stored at ultracold temperatures, so expanding the list of vaccine distributors could mean some doses go to waste if providers can’t use them quickly enough.

A fast-spreading variant first identified in the United Kingdom became the dominant one in the U.S., threatening the Biden administration’s progress.

“That’s quite honestly why everybody has been so aggressive and moving on vaccines and masking policy,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said of variants in an interview. “We have to stay ahead of this. Fortunately, we are.”

The White House is offering additional support, vaccinators and surge testing to states seeing a rise in cases. So far, the vaccines are proving effective against the variants. But the administration is preparing for booster shots if they are needed.

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“We’ll be prepared for any contingency, and we will ensure that we have more than enough supply for the American people and listen to the doctors,” said Jeff Zients, the White House’s Covid-19 coordinator.

The potential need for boosters is one reason the administration wrestled with donating vaccines amid pressure to help other countries seeing surges.

Biden administration pledged $4 billion to global vaccine efforts and is sending emergency supplies to India. The White House also said it would share up to 60 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses with other countries after a Food and Drug Administration review.

Some Democrats say Mr. Biden can do more. A group of senators including Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) is urging the administration to temporarily waive intellectual property rights to allow developing countries to produce the vaccine.

Mr. Biden is also grappling with pressure to ease international travel restrictions, with discussions focused on how to relax the rules while limiting the spread of variants. The administration said Friday it was banning most travelers from India beginning May 4, citing concerns over the surge.

Recently, US has relaxed travel restrictions for some international students. Mr. Biden’s administration has said it won’t establish a federally run vaccine credential. Some public officials and businesses have floated the idea of a document that would allow people to show proof of vaccination when returning to work or traveling.

As per health officials, inoculating children is a key step toward herd immunity.

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The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently authorized in the U.S. for people 16 years and older. The companies have asked U.S. health regulators to authorize the vaccine for people 12 years and older. Mr. Zients said if the FDA authorizes Pfizer’s vaccine for adolescents, the administration will have “both a robust plan and sufficient supply” to administer those shots.

Shots from Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson are authorized in the U.S. for people 18 years and older. Both companies are testing their vaccines in adolescents.

Meanwhile, Biden’s senior Covid-19 advisers say they are reaching out to pediatricians, citing them as “an important point of trust” who can help encourage parents to vaccinate their children once shots are approved. The administration hopes children in high school will be vaccinated going into the fall school year.

To note, many school districts are still providing hybrid in-person and remote learning, though some of the largest districts across the country plan to fully reopen in the fall for in-person instruction. In an interview with media aired Friday, Mr. Biden said K-12 schools “should probably all be open” in the fall.

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